At Fort Lewis, the home base for the largest detachment of U.S. troops in Mosul, yesterday was a time of agonizing uncertainty over the toll taken by the attack in Iraq. Chaplains and base support...

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At Fort Lewis, the home base for the largest detachment of U.S. troops in Mosul, yesterday was a time of agonizing uncertainty over the toll taken by the attack in Iraq.

Chaplains and base support groups fielded phone calls from worried families while fresh yellow ribbons fluttered from the Interstate 5 overpass near the Army base south of Tacoma.

Fort Lewis officials had little information yesterday on the attack. Lt. Col. Bill Costello, a spokesman, said he didn’t know how many Fort Lewis soldiers may have been killed or injured.

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“It doesn’t matter if you lose a soldier Christmas week or in August, the loss of a fellow soldier hits deeply,” Costello said.

Before yesterday’s attack, the Iraq war had claimed 31 Fort Lewis soldiers and wounded hundreds of others.

Fort Lewis’ main contribution to the U.S. presence in Mosul is the 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division. The brigade and support units constitute roughly 4,000 of some 8,500 U.S. soldiers in the northern Iraq-based Task Force Olympia.

The 1st Brigade features a new generation of eight-wheeled Stryker vehicles that mix high-tech computer communications with armor intended to protect against roadside bombs, rocket-propelled grenades and other hostile fire.

The brigade arrived in Mosul in the first few weeks of October, replacing another Fort Lewis-based Stryker unit just as violence intensified.

Operating out of urban havens in a city of more than 1 million, insurgents have stormed police stations and political offices, killing dozens of Iraqis allied with the U.S. forces.

The 1st Brigade has had the difficult task of trying to curb the Mosul-based insurgency. And, with barely two months of duty time in Iraq, much of the brigade already has seen combat frequently. Before yesterday’s attack, the 1st Brigade had lost six soldiers and many more were wounded in action.

Many of the casualties occurred while soldiers were on foot, though some also happened while soldiers were riding in Stryker vehicles.

The casualties also have come from mortar attacks on Forward Operating Base Marez, a Mosul base for many of the U.S. troops. The base is ringed by heavily populated urban areas, which can serve as launching points for hit-and-run mortar attacks. And, on Nov. 9, Army Maj. Horst Moore and Air Force Master Sgt. Steven Auchman both died from a midday mortar blast that hit the base.

Moore was killed as he left his office for a trip to his trailer, which was then hit by a mortar, according to Master Sgt. Cheryl Kirk, a 1st Brigade member who has remained behind at Fort Lewis.

Soldiers who previously served at the base say routine trips to the mess tent, less than a quarter of a mile from the edge of the base, carried an element of risk from mortar or rocket attacks.

“It’s out in the open, and you can see it from outside the base,” said a soldier who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of discipline from superiors. “It’s always been one of those places where your chances of getting a Purple Heart were pretty good.”

All base personnel have been required to wear protective body armor and helmets on the walk to the mess tent, the soldier said. But once inside, the armor and helmets came off.

Though the mess tent is encircled by a concrete wall to protect against shrapnel, it has a soft top. And the vulnerability of the mess tent, filled with hundreds of soldiers during meal times, was a source of concern.

“There were other places that you could have put it that were more out of sight,” the soldier said.

Another soldier who requested anonymity to avoid discipline says the mess tent was built in 2003. It has a rigid aluminum frame, with plastic sheeting around it.

The soldier said that roughly 15-foot-high concrete barriers were erected to shield the tent from mortar attacks, but with the tent top nearly 50 feet off the ground, the barriers don’t provide much protection.

“It’s a fairly obvious problem — mortars are falling, and you don’t have any hard structure over your head,” he said. “They were making improvements to it when I left, but regardless of that, it’s still a big chance you’re taking.”

Troops had grumbled about the mess tent since it was constructed and had been pushing for a permanent concrete structure, he said. Construction of that structure is now under way.

As of yesterday, it was unclear what caused the mess-tent explosion.

Mortar and rocket attacks, though frequent, are notoriously inaccurate.

They also are hard to stop, since they often are launched by insurgents who never stay in one place for long and operate in the thick of civilian populations, according to soldiers who have served at the base.

Another possibility is that an explosive device was somehow set off inside the base, which also is used by Iraqi troops.

Throughout the past year, the reliability of Iraqi forces has been a frequent source of concern for U.S. commanders in the Mosul area.

In a briefing with reporters last month, Col. Michael Rounds, who commanded the first Stryker brigade to deploy to Iraq, said that some units of the Iraqi Army National Guard had emerged as capable fighting forces.

But Rounds said he mistrusted the head of the Mosul police force and was unsuccessful in efforts to get the police official removed.

Last month, after police stations were abandoned in the face of insurgent attacks, that official was finally removed.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

Jessica Blanchard: 206-464-3896 or jblanchard@seattletimes.com

The Associated Press and Times researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.