BAGHDAD, Iraq—A devastating explosion tore through the dining tent of a U.S. military base at lunchtime Tuesday, killing at least 22 people, including 15 American service members, and wounding about 66 people in the volatile northwest city of Mosul.
It was one of the deadliest attacks on U.S. troops since the war began.
Also among the casualties were five American security contractors and two members of an Iraqi security force working at Forward Operating Base Marez, according to the U.S. military. The base, about 220 miles north of the capital, is used by American troops and the interim Iraqi government's security forces.
"It's a sad day in Mosul, but we're going to see the mission through," said Brig. Gen. Carter Ham, commander of Task Force Olympia, comprised mostly of soldiers from the 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, based at Fort Lewis, Wash. The brigade has about 3,500 soldiers.
The attack occurred on what had been an upbeat day in Iraq. Insurgents released two French journalists held since August, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair made a surprise visit to show his support for Iraq's elections next month. Blair called the violence in Iraq "a battle between democracy and terror."
The attack on the base was the latest in the insurgents' campaign to sabotage the Jan. 30 parliamentary elections by keeping large swaths of the country unstable. With the attack in Mosul, where insurgents regularly hit Iraqi police and national guard sites, and two powerful bombings this week in Shiite Muslim holy cities, rebels proved they can still strike at will from the north to the south.
"We have expected increased terrorist violence as insurgents try to disrupt the political process, derail elections and rob the Iraqi people of their right to a government of their choosing," said Lt. Col. Steve Boylan, a military spokesman in Baghdad.
The militant group Ansar al Sunnah Army claimed responsibility for the attack in an Internet statement that described it as a "martyrdom operation." The same group was behind the executions of 12 Nepalese workers and claimed responsibility for other violence in the Mosul area.
The explosion ripped through the flimsy tent roof of the mess hall just as hundreds of soldiers sat down for lunch, according to the military and an account provided by an American reporter embedded with the troops. A sturdier dining hall with a reinforced roof was reportedly under construction.
After first blaming the devastation on rockets or mortars, military officials said the cause of the blast was still under investigation and called it "a single explosion."
Jeremy Redmon of the Richmond, Va., Times-Dispatch reported that the force of the explosion knocked soldiers off their feet and out of their seats. Thick smoke hung over the scene, soldiers screamed for medics and "puddles of bright red blood, lunch trays and overturned tables and chairs covered the floor," Redmon reported.
President Bush said Tuesday that he was saddened by the deaths in Mosul, noting that it "is particularly sorrowful for the families as we head into the Christmas season. We pray for them. We send our heartfelt condolences to the loved ones who suffer today."
He called the war "a very important and vital mission."
"I'm confident democracy will prevail in Iraq. I know a free Iraq will lead to a more peaceful world," Bush said after he visited soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
A senior administration official in Washington told Knight Ridder that emergency response in Mosul was complicated because there was no medical facility at the scene. In some cases, the wounded had to be carried to other locations before they could receive potentially life-saving treatment.
Insurgent activity increased in Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city, during last month's U.S.-led offensive on the formerly rebel-held city of Fallujah. Earlier Tuesday, hundreds of students demonstrated at the center of Mosul, demanding that U.S. troops cease raids on homes and mosques. Iraqi forces also prevented an attack by insurgents trying to seize a police station at the center of the city.
On Sunday, rebels launched three separate attacks on U.S. forces with homemade explosives and a car bomb.
From the Sunni town of Fallujah to the Shiite slum of Sadr City, residents drew distinctions between an attack on American forces, widely viewed as occupiers, and terrorism that kills civilians.
"Don't you consider all the actions conducted against us by the Americans as terrorism? Do you consider killing women and children, making them homeless, legitimate actions for an occupier?" said Talaat al Wazan, a Mosul native who's secretary general of the Iraqi National Unity political party.
"All the actions done by the Americans are terrorism, so it is the right of anyone treated with this cruelty to use any means to act against the terrorists."
Sheik Hassan al Athari, a Baghdad representative of the rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, said militants were exercising their right of self defense in the face of foreign occupation. He said such attacks are to be expected "as long as Iraq remains a laboratory for the experiments of American forces as well as foreign terrorists."
"When American forces receive such a big strike, we know they are going to respond violently and powerfully, but we don't know when or where they're going to focus their anger," al Athari said.
In other developments:
_One Marine assigned to the First Marine Expeditionary Force died of wounds received in a vehicle accident Tuesday in al Anbar province. No details were available.
_A militant group called the Islamic Army released two French reporters who were seized en route to the southern city of Najaf on Aug. 20. Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot were dropped off at the French Embassy in Baghdad after four months in captivity.
Their Syrian driver, also taken hostage, was found and freed by U.S. forces during the recent battle in Fallujah. The Arab satellite TV station al-Jazeera aired a statement Tuesday from the Islamic Army saying the journalists were freed after it was proved they weren't U.S. spies, because of pleas by influential Islamic groups and because the French government refused to join the American-led military coalition in Iraq.
The group earlier threatened to kill the hostages unless France repealed its law banning Islamic headscarves in public schools.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Drew Brown and John Walcott contributed to this report from Washington, special correspondent Huda Ahmed from Baghdad.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20041221 USIRAQ Mosul