U.S. troops backed by armored vehicles swept through virtually empty streets of Mosul amid an undeclared curfew in Iraq's third largest city...

Share story

BAGHDAD, Iraq – U.S. troops backed by armored vehicles swept through virtually empty streets of Mosul amid an undeclared curfew in Iraq’s third largest city today, a day after an insurgent strike on a nearby base killed 22 people and wounded dozens in one of the deadliest attacks on American troops since the war began.

The military was investigating whether a bomb was planted at the mess tent in Forward Operating Base Marez, where the blast sprayed shrapnel as U.S. soldiers sat down to lunch Tuesday. Initial reports said a 122 mm rocket ripped through the tent’s ceiling.

Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz, commander of the multinational force in Iraq, told CNN that a planted bomb was “a possibility.” A radical Sunni group, the Ansar al-Sunnah Army, said it carried out the attack and claimed it was a “martyrdom operation” — a reference to a suicide bomber.

The explosive was apparently packed with pellets the size of BBs that ripped across the tent when it exploded, Brig. Gen. Carter F. Ham, commander of Task Force Olympia — the main U.S. force in nothern Iraq — told Nemitz.

Mortars and rockets produce shrapnel but are not packed with pellets, which are often found in roadside bombs or explosives worn by suicide bombers.

The military was also looking at better ways of protecting places where U.S. troops regularly gather on their bases, such as dining areas and gyms — areas that are frequently targeted by mortars, though usually with little accuracy. Bill Nemitz, a columnist with the Portland (Maine) Press Herald who was embedded with the troops at Marez, told CNN that he heard “a lot of discussion” among troops about the vulnerability of the tent.

About 50 people — most of them injured soldiers from Mosul — arrived on an Air Force C-141 transport plane at Ramstein Air Base in Germany for treatment at nearby Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, said Maj. Mike Young, a base spokesman.

The hospital said at least eight were in critical condition, Landstuhl spokeswoman Marie Shaw said. With a light snow falling, some wounded were carried out on stretchers, while about a dozen were expected to be well enough to walk off the plane.

An Associated Press reporter saw almost no cars or people on the streets of Mosul Wednesday and most schools in the city were closed, although a formal curfew was not declared. Even traffic policemen were not at major intersections as usual.

U.S. forces blocked Mosul’s five bridges over the Tigris River that link the western and eastern sectors of the city, while hundreds of troops spread out across several neighborhoods, conducting sweeps in eastern districts backed by Bradley fighting vehicles and armored Humvees. The AP reporter saw helicopter gunships clattering overhead and jets flying high above the city.

Mosul, located 225 miles north of Baghdad, was relatively peaceful in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime last year. But it has become a hotspot for insurgent violence ever since U.S.-Iraqi forces invaded the main guerrilla stronghold of Fallujah last month.

Metz told CNN that experts had flown from Baghdad to Mosul to “do a very detailed explosive forensics investigation and they will be able to tell us the type of weapon” used in Tuesday’s blast.

The blast came as the military had nearly finished building a reinforced, bunker-like dining area at the camp to increase protection against mortar and rocket attacks, Metz said. The new facility was due to be completed in February, he said.

“We recognized the threat,” Metz said Wednesday on CBS’ “The Early Show.”

Metz told CNN that previous rocket and mortar attacks on Marez were “rather random.”

“The enemy cannot stay in one place long enough to attack us, therefore his accuracy is pretty poor,” he said.

The dead included 18 Americans — 13 service members and five U.S. civilian contractors — and three Iraqi National Guard members and one unidentified non-U.S. citizen, the U.S. military command in Baghdad said today.

Of the 69 wounded, 44 were U.S. military personnel and the remainder American civilians, Iraqi troops, and other foreigners.

Defense contractor Halliburton Co. said four of its employees were killed. It did not give their nationalities. Sixteen other Halliburton workers, including 12 subcontractors, were seriously injured from the blast, the company said.

At the military hospital near Mosul airfield, doctors and orderlies treated dozens of soldiers for burns, shrapnel wounds and damage to their eyes.

“This is the worst we have seen in the 11 months since we have been here,” said Master Sgt. David Scott, chief ward master for the hospital.

Sgt. Kyle Wright of Richlands, Va., recovering from wounds to his leg and back, said he was in the tent about to take a bite of chocolate cake when he was blown into the air.

“When I came to, I looked up and saw open sky,” Wright, a member of the 276th Engineer Battalion, told Jeremy Redmon, an embedded reporter from the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

It was the latest in a week of deadly strikes across Iraq that highlighted the growing power of the insurgents in the run-up to the Jan. 30 national elections.

“We are not going to be intimidated. We will help the Iraqi people and their security forces not to be intimidated and we are pushing on toward the elections in January,” Metz said.

There was little apparent sympathy for the dead Americans on the streets of Mosul, particularly among its large population of Sunni Arabs. The city also is home to a Kurdish minority whose two main political parties are U.S. allies.

“When occupiers come to any country (they) find resistance. And this is within Iraqi resistance,” Sattar Jabbar said of the attack.

“I prefer that American troops leave the country and go out of cities so that Iraq will be safer and we run its affairs,” Jamal Mahmoud, a trade union official. “I wish that 2,000 U.S. soldiers were killed, not 20.”

In other developments Wednesday:

Poland’s Prime Minister Marek Belka and Defense Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski toured Camp Echo in Diwaniyah, the new headquarters for the Polish-led international security force in central Iraq, for a Christmas visit to some 2,400 Polish troops stationed in Iraq.

Four Iraqi civilians from one family were killed and three others wounded when U.S. soldiers opened fire on their car in the Abu Ghraib area just west of Baghdad, said Akram al-Zaobaie, a doctor in the local hospital. The soldier started firing after a bomb hit a U.S. convoy, he said.

Iraqi security forces stormed a house in the Shiite Muslim holy city of Najaf in a shootout that killed one guerrilla and a policeman. The raid came after 54 people were killed and 142 injured in a car bomb explosion Sunday in Najaf’s city center.