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Security gaps remain a concern of U.S. military commanders

WASHINGTON—Gaps in security around U.S. bases and military operations have continued to plague U.S. and allied soldiers almost from the moment they stepped foot in Iraq nearly two years ago.

Investigators have determined that a suicide bomber probably carried out Tuesday's attack on a mess tent, which killed 22 people and wounded 69 at Forward Operating Base Marez near Mosul. The radical group Ansar al-Sunnah Army claimed responsibility and said the bomber was a 24-year-old man who had worked at the base for two months.

No matter how much concrete and concertina wire Americans and their allies surround themselves with in Iraq, they'll always be vulnerable to attack. The more they rely on Iraqi troops to take over security responsibilities, the more they leave themselves open to infiltrators who work for the insurgents.

Security procedures for entering any U.S.-occupied facility in Iraq are usually quite strict and thorough. Vehicles are routinely inspected for bombs before they enter any secure area, at the very least by visual inspection and usually by explosives-sniffing dogs. People entering on foot—whether they're U.S. troops, American or other Westerners, or Iraqi civilians—are generally required to show two identity cards and be thoroughly searched.

Some senior Iraqis within the newly reconstituted civil defense and military forces have been fired because of suspect loyalties.

Still, insurgents find ways around all precautions. Some bring in hidden bombs. Others simply observe and report.

Some of the attacks linked to infiltrators include:

_When Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz visited Iraq in October 2003, insurgents attacked the Hotel Rashid, where he was staying, with rockets. Wolfowitz wasn't harmed.

_In February, when U.S. Gen. John P. Abizaid visited U.S. troops and local security officials in Fallujah, a hotbed for the insurgency, insurgents ambushed his convoy with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons. The mayor was later detained and questioned.

_In October, a pair of bombings inside the Green Zone, the vast compound in Baghdad that houses the U.S. Embassy and military headquarters, killed five people.

_Last week, three Iraqi election workers were dragged from their car and executed. An Iraqi election official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared retaliation, said investigators believe the attack was probably carried out with help from tipsters.

What's more, mortar and rocket barrages rain down with increasing frequency and accuracy.

Senior defense and other U.S. officials won't say publicly how they believe the attacker got the bomb into the camp at Mosul.

"We know the Iraqi security forces are pretty well penetrated, and if they were providing some form of security at that facility, that is a likely avenue for penetration," said Jeffrey White, a former senior Defense Intelligence Agency analyst.

"It's for sure a fact of life, especially in the environment we are in Iraq, which after all is a tribally based society. There are many, many personal connections and relationships. A brother may be in the police; another brother may be in the insurgency," said White, now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The Iraqi government does much of the vetting for its security forces, but it's unclear how effective it is.

"You can vet to some extent. You can use records of the old regime to try to track down members of the (former regime's) security services. That's not going to catch more than a fraction of the people involved," White said.

"You don't need huge numbers of people to provide intelligence or look the other way at the gate."

Many security officers still haven't been screened, said Sabah Kadhim, an Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman.

For example, the Interior Ministry inherited 135,000 police officers who had been hired by American administrators with little or no vetting, he said. Six months later, only 85,000 have been reviewed.

"We still have 50,000 who haven't been checked out," he said. "And it's not just a question of loyalty or background. We don't even know whether they're working."

Lack of intelligence is the No. 1 reason infiltrators are able to live and work among Americans and pro-government Iraqis, Kadhim said. Because the U.S. military and the Iraqi government don't entirely trust each other, they refuse to share intelligence, he said.

American troops hassle their Iraqi counterparts at checkpoints and make it clear they're not trusted, Kadhim said. That behavior, combined with the U.S.-led offensives in Fallujah and other cities, turns Iraqi soldiers into potential agents for the insurgency.

"Even at checkpoints, I've seen them swearing at the Americans. They're treated so badly that, after a while, they just do their own thing," Kadhim said.

Top U.S. officials blamed the nature of the war.

"This is an insurgency," said Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaking Wednesday during a Pentagon briefing. "We have no neat front lines. The front line can be the dining hall, it can be the road outside the base, it can be the police station or the governor's office or the mayor's office down at Mosul. That's their territory."


(Brown reported from Washington, Allam from Baghdad. Jonathan S. Landay contributed from Washington.)


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.