BAGHDAD, Iraq – A 122 mm rocket slammed into a mess tent Tuesday at a military base near the northern city of Mosul (search), ripping through the ceiling and spraying shrapnel as U.S. soldiers sat down to lunch. Officials said 22 people were killed in the deadliest single attack against Americans in Iraq since the start of the war.
The dead included 20 Americans — 15 servicemembers and five civilian contractors — and two Iraqi soldiers. Sixty-six people were wounded, including 42 U.S. troops, Capt. Brian Lucas, a military spokesman in Baghdad (search), said early Wednesday.
Halliburton Co. (search), a Houston-based company whose subsidiary Kellogg Brown & Root supplies food service and other support activities for U.S. troops in Mosul, said seven of its workers were killed. Halliburton did not give the nationalities of the dead but they apparently included the five American civilians. The two other deaths, if correct, would boost the overall toll to 24.
Inside the tent, U.S. soldiers reacted quickly. With people screaming and thick smoke billowing, soldiers turned their lunch tables upside down, placed the wounded on them and gently carried them into the parking lot, said Jeremy Redmon, a reporter for the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch embedded with the troops in Mosul.
A radical Sunni Muslim group, the Ansar al-Sunnah Army, claimed responsibility for the attack — the latest in a week of deadly strikes across Iraq that highlighted the unwavering power of the insurgents in the run-up to the Jan. 30 national elections.
President Bush said the explosion should not derail the elections and that he hoped relatives of those killed know that their loved ones died in "a vital mission for peace."
"I'm confident democracy will prevail in Iraq," he said.
Portland (Maine) Press Herald photographer Gregory Rec, who was sleeping about a quarter-mile from the mess hall when he was awakened by the loud explosion, said he rushed to the scene, where a soldier told him "he heard a whoosh, he looked up and saw a fireball halfway between the ceiling and the floor."
The attack at Forward Operating Base Marez came hours after British Prime Minister Tony Blair made a surprise visit to Baghdad and spoke of a "battle between democracy and terror."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan, responding to a question about how Iraqis will be able to safely get to some 9,000 polling places if U.S. troops can't secure their own bases, said there was "security and peace" in 15 of Iraq's 18 provinces.
Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city, was relatively peaceful in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime last year. But insurgent attacks in the largely Sunni area have increased dramatically in the past year — particularly since the U.S.-led military offensive in November to retake Fallujah from militants.
Like most mess halls at U.S. bases in Iraq, the dining area at Base Marez is covered with a tent. Insurgents have fired mortars at the mess hall more than 30 times this year, Redmon said.
Mortar attacks on U.S. bases, particularly on the huge white tents that serve as dining halls, have been frequent in Iraq for more than a year. Just last month, for example, a mortar attack on a Mosul base killed two troops with Task Force Olympia, the reinforced brigade responsible for security in much of northern Iraq.
Bill Nemitz, a columnist with the Portland Press Herald who was embedded with the troops in Mosul, told a cable news outlet that he heard "a lot of discussion" about the vulnerability of the tent.
Lt. Col. Paul Hastings, a spokesman for Task Force Olympia, acknowledged the tent's vulnerability and said in a televised interview that the military is building a new dining facility at the base — a concrete structure that Nemitz said was supposed to have been ready for Christmas.
Base Marez, also known as the al-Ghizlani military camp, is three miles south of Mosul and is used by both U.S. troops and the interim Iraqi government's security forces. It once was Mosul's civilian airport but is now a heavily fortified area surrounded by blast walls and barbed wire. Its two main gates are guarded by U.S. troops; Iraqi National Guard members man checkpoints outside to prevent cars from getting close without being searched.
Earlier, Brig. Gen. Carter Ham, commander of Task Force Olympia, said U.S. military personnel, American and foreign nationals and Iraqi soldiers were among the dead. "It is indeed a very, very sad day," Ham said.
Redmon said the dead included two soldiers from the Richmond-based 276th Engineer Battalion, which had just sat down to eat. The force knocked soldiers off their feet and out of their seats as a fireball enveloped the top of the tent and shrapnel sprayed into the area, Redmon said.
Scores of troops crammed into concrete bomb shelters, while others wandered around in a daze and collapsed, he said.
"I can't hear! I can't hear!" one female soldier cried as a friend hugged her.
A huge hole was blown in the roof of the tent, and puddles of blood, lunch trays and overturned tables and chairs covered the floor, Redmon reported.
Near the front entrance, troops tended a soldier with a serious head wound, but within minutes, they zipped him into a black body bag, he said. Three more bodies were in the parking lot.
"It was very hard to watch and very chaotic but at the same time what amazed me was that within 20 minutes the worst of the wounded, the ones who needed the most attention, were out of there. It was just a remarkable effort by all the soldiers involved. From what I could see they performed flawlessly," Redmon said.
In addition to the two soldiers in the Richmond unit, two soldiers from Maine National Guard's 133rd Engineer Battalion were killed and 12 were wounded, the Portland Press Herald reported.
Redmon and photographer Dean Hoffmeyer are embedded with the 276th Engineer Battalion, a Richmond National Guard unit that can trace its lineage to the First Virginia Regiment of Volunteers formed in 1652. George Washington and Patrick Henry were two of its early commanders. Henry created the unit's motto, "Liberty or Death."
The base is also used by members of the Stryker Brigade, based at Fort Lewis, Wash., a military official said.
The Ansar al-Sunnah Army claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement on the Internet. It said the attack was a "martyrdom operation" targeting a mess hall.
Ansar al-Sunnah is believed to be a fundamentalist group that wants to turn Iraq into an Islamic state like Afghanistan's former Taliban regime. The Sunni group claimed responsibility for beheading 12 Nepalese hostages and other recent attacks in Mosul.
Before Tuesday, Mosul was the scene of the deadliest single incident for U.S. troops in Iraq. On Nov. 15, 2003, two Black Hawk helicopters collided over the city, killing 17 soldiers and injuring five. The crash occurred as the choppers maneuvered to avoid ground fire.