BAGHDAD, Iraq—A suicide bomber likely set off a blast that killed 22 people and wounded 69 others in a dining tent at a U.S. Army base shared with Iraqi security forces in Mosul, U.S. military officials said Wednesday.
Confirmation that the attack was a suicide bombing would make Tuesday's attack the most lethal penetration to date of a U.S. military facility in Iraq. It also would raise serious questions about the extent to which insurgents have infiltrated Iraqi security units and a huge civilian workforce employed by the American government and private contractors in Iraq.
Some senior U.S. officials expressed deep fears that the infiltration is so widespread that it could hobble Iraqi security forces assigned to protect Jan. 30 interim assembly polls, a key element of the Bush administration's strategy to stabilize Iraq.
"If they can get a bomb into a mess tent, how do you protect people lined up to vote all over the country?" said a senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a Pentagon news conference that a suicide bomber appeared to have ignited the blast and fireball that tore through the dining tent as hundreds of troops were eating lunch at Forward Operating Base Marez.
"At this point, it looks like it was an improvised explosive device worn by an attacker," he said. Investigators found evidence of components used in such bombs, and there was no evidence of a rocket or a mortar round, the military said in a statement.
U.S. officials initially had suspected that a mortar bomb or 122 mm rocket had caused the explosion.
Myers said he didn't know if an unidentified corpse found among the casualties in the blood-spattered tent belonged to the bomber.
A Sunni Muslim militant group, Ansar al Sunnah Army, claimed responsibility for the attack Wednesday in an Internet posting that described it as a "martyrdom operation," which typically refers to a suicide bombing.
Fourteen U.S. troops, four American civilian contractors, three Iraqi security force members and the unidentified individual died in the blast.
Forty-four U.S. soldiers, seven American contractors, five civilian employees of the Defense Department, two Iraqi civilians, 10 workers of other nationalities and an unidentified individual were wounded.
"I assure you that everything possible is being done to get to the bottom of what happened and to take the appropriate steps so we can prevent potential future attacks of this nature," Myers said.
A U.S. intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the case, said FBI investigators had concluded that the explosion was caused by a bomb smuggled into the tent by an Iraqi civilian employee.
"This was an inside job," he asserted. "It exposes a huge problem that nobody's wanted to deal with. All of our operations—military, State Department, contractors, as well as the Iraqi police and national guard—probably have been penetrated by the insurgents. We can't fire all the Iraqi employees, we're counting on the Iraqi security forces, and there's no way we can weed out everybody that has ties to the terrorists."
There were unconfirmed reports that U.S. investigators believed the explosives may have been smuggled into the dining tent in an ice chest.
Myers defended the security measures taken at the facility by Army Brig. Gen. Carter F. Ham, the commander of Task Force Olympia, which is based in Mosul.
"We know how difficult this is, to prevent people bent on suicide," he said. "I think he has a very good plan for force protection."
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, who appeared with Myers, said that shielding U.S. facilities in Iraq from attacks "is an enormous challenge ... something that our forces worry about, work on constantly."
He said the U.S.-led coalition was prevailing in its efforts to contain the insurgency by members of Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority and ensure that the Jan. 30 elections take place.
"The men and women in uniform have routed the insurgents in Fallujah and elsewhere," he declared, referring to the former extremist stronghold in central Iraq that U.S.-led forces captured in a massive offensive last month.
Two independent reports Wednesday said that the insurgency remains strong, however.
"The insurgency is not confined to a finite number of fanatics isolated from the population and opposed to a democratic Iraq," said a report by the International Crisis Group, a conflict resolution organization based in Brussels, Belgium.
The insurrection is being fueled by widespread anti-American sentiment and growing Iraqi nationalism, it said.
Anthony Cordesman, a former Pentagon official now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, an independent policy research organization in Washington, said in a separate report that the Bush administration has underestimated the extent of the insurrection since it began.
The administration "in short ... failed to honestly assess the facts on the ground in a manner reminiscent of Vietnam," he wrote. "There is no evidence that the number of insurgents is declining as a result of coalition and Iraqi attacks to date."
Mosul, the country's third-largest city, has witnessed a huge rise in violence since the Fallujah offensive. In an interview earlier this week, interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi blamed the "lawlessness" on insurgents who fled Fallujah and other troubled areas.
U.S. military officials trace the turmoil in Mosul to other factors, including local political feuds, Iraqi security forces that are weak and deeply infiltrated by the resistance, and abiding loyalty to former dictator Saddam Hussein among the Sunni population.
Moreover, they point out that at the beginning of the U.S. occupation, when Mosul was among the most peaceful cities in Iraq, 17,000 American troops were deployed there. There now are about 9,000 U.S. soldiers in the city.
In Fallujah, meanwhile, thousands of residents displaced by the fighting packed belongings and prepared to leave filthy, freezing camps as the Iraqi government announced families would be allowed to return home starting Thursday.
"If I even just see Fallujah I won't be able to speak. My tears will speak for me," said Ali Mohammed, 28, a taxi driver from Fallujah.
About 2,000 families from the Andalus neighborhood will be the first to return, Hashim Hasani, Iraq's minister of industry, told journalists in Baghdad. Others will follow on a schedule that depends on how quickly security and basic services are restored. The government estimates at least 200,000 residents fled the fighting.
Residents will return to a city where sporadic clashes continue and large sections were flattened. The battle destroyed hundreds of homes and mosques, severed water and electricity supplies and left the streets lined with unexploded ordnance and dangling electrical cables.
Hasani swatted away news reports that the U.S. military planned to introduce retina scans, ID badges and other stringent security measures to prevent insurgents from slipping back into the city. Insurgents have distributed leaflets in surrounding villages warning residents not to return because fighting will intensify.
The International Crisis Group's report can be found at http://www.icg.org/home/index.cfm?l=1&id=3196
The Anthony Cordesman report can be found at http://www.csis.org/features/iraq_deviraqinsurgency.pdf
(Allam reported from Baghdad, Landay from Washington.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20041221 USIRAQ Mosul