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Wounded soldiers and civilians arrived at Ramstein Air Base in Germany yesterday after a flight from Balad, north of Baghdad.
Wounded soldiers and civilians arrived at Ramstein Air Base in Germany yesterday after a flight from Balad, north of Baghdad. (AP Photo / Michael Probst)

US says signs point to suicide attack

WASHINGTON -- The US military said yesterday it believes a suicide bomber penetrated an Army base in northern Iraq and set off the explosion on Tuesday that killed 21 people, including 18 Americans.

The prospect that an anticoalition militant, possibly an Iraqi or foreign worker hired by the United States, could breach a heavily fortified US military base unmolested set off new alarms in the military, which began a wholesale reassessment of security procedures at US facilities across Iraq.

In Maine, families and friends of the Gardiner-based 133d Engineer Battalion -- which suffered two dead and 10 injured -- said the Maine National Guard soldiers had long been wary of what they considered the vulnerability of the base near Mosul.

Air Force General Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the Pentagon that the explosion appeared to be caused by "an improvised explosive device worn by an attacker," who struck as 400 US and Iraqi troops and contractors ate lunch in a mess tent. Small ball bearings often used in such attacks were found at the scene, he said. FBI and military investigators said that the remains of the bomber also had been found.

"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.

The attack killed 14 US troops and four contractors, and three Iraqi troops as well as the suspected bomber. Sixty-nine people were injured, many of them seriously.

Military officials initially believed the blast was caused by a 122mm rocket fired at the mess tent at Forward Operating Base Marez. The base has been targeted by mortar attacks dozens of times this year.

The US military headquarters in Baghdad said in a statement yesterday that Tuesday's blast was "likely" the work of a suicide bomber, adding that "evidence found at the site includes components normally associated with improvised explosive devices. There was no physical evidence of a rocket, mortar, or other type of indirect fire weapon."

The evidence of a suicide attack lent credence to a claim of responsibility from the Army of Ansar al-Sunnah, a militant Sunni Muslim group with possible ties to Al Qaeda, which called the assault a "martyr operation."

Military officials and security specialists said Tuesday's attack -- the deadliest on US troops since the war began -- was another indication that insurgents have grown more sophisticated. Bush administration officials have warned for weeks that insurgents could step up deadly attacks as the country prepares for a national election on Jan. 30, a prediction echoed yesterday by Pentagon officials.

"Insurgents are desperate to create the perception that elections are not possible," Army General George W. Casey Jr., the top US commander in Iraq, said in a statement from Baghdad.

Officials also said the attack has prompted a complete reassessment of how coalition forces vet the Iraqi and foreign workers who provide crucial support to the military operation. Many Iraqi civilians hired by the military to cook, clean, and fill construction and office jobs can often move around US facilities unaccompanied.

"It's a challenge in a combat zone to balance the hiring of a local workforce while enforcing strict security," said a senior Army officer in Washington who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We are going to be redoubling efforts to ensure proper screening of local hires, and perimeter security efforts will certainly be tightened," he added, possibly including daily physical searches of Iraqis who have clearance to work on US bases. "As tragic as these events are, we learn from them," the officer said.

US forces sealed off entire districts of Mosul, blocking bridges and raiding homes in a hunt for suspects. The attack also prompted a hastily scheduled news conference yesterday with Myers and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Rumsfeld said it was "an enormous challenge to provide force protection. They [US forces] have to be right 100 percent of the time. An attacker only has to be right occasionally."

Myers said: "We have no 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. They operate all over that."

If confirmed, Tuesday's attack would be the second time that a suicide bomber infiltrated a US facility since October, when an insurgent blew himself up inside the headquarters of the US coalition in Baghdad, killing six people.

For Maine soldiers and their families, the attack brought home their worst fears about security.

Melissa Haskell, 28, of Gardiner, Maine, said her cousin, Specialist Doug Grant, told her that soldiers often avoid the soft-canvas mess hall at the base because of the heavy concentration of soldiers there at the same time every day, an enticement for insurgents to strike.

"He didn't go down there because . . . of the possibility of attack," Haskell said yesterday. "A lot of people didn't go in there because they either didn't want to eat there and because they can bring food back to their room. And that's what Doug did a lot of the time. That's the way it's been since the mess hall was built."

Going to the mess hall, Haskell said, was "like putting cheese out for a mouse."

Dannielle Mitchell of Waterville said her fiance, Specialist Shawn Murray, 32, has pledged never to eat there again. In an e-mail Murray sent to Mitchell yesterday morning, the soldier said that, even before the explosion, terrified soldiers had constructed a makeshift kitchen in their sleeping quarters.

In an e-mail Mitchell received at 2:18 a.m. yesterday, Murray wrote: "I usually eat in my room. I do need you to send me some food that won't go bad. We have just about a full kitchen now, a stove we made, and everything.' "

Murray was in the guard tower, Mitchell said, when the blast went off. "He was really shaken up," Mitchell said. "The troops are in mourning. Nobody wants to see their brother soldiers die."

Military specialists said the apparent suicide bombing speaks to the lack of adequate security, not only around but inside US bases, and to the access that Iraqis have to those facilities.

"You have to reassess just how close you let Iraqis get close to a large concentration of Americans," said Michael O'Hanlon, a defense specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "You have to think of every circumstance where Iraqis come in contact with large numbers of Americans and ask whether you really want to run this risk more than you absolutely have to."

He said Tuesday's attack could drive a larger wedge between US forces and their Iraqi allies and contractors if the Americans suspect they are not loyal. But he warned about going overboard.

"We have to repair and maintain US and Iraqi ties," considered critical to the success of coalition efforts against insurgents.

Myers said the deadly Mosul blast offers a larger lesson about an Iraqi insurgency that shows no sings of abating.

"What it tells us -- and we know this from our history with insurgencies -- [is that] it's going to be very tough," he said. "And as this insurgency has changed in its nature, and its character has become more intense, our resolve has to be all that tougher."

Brian MacQuarrie and Suzanne Smalley of the Globe staff contributed to this report from Boston. Material from Reuters was also included. 

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