Dean Hoffmeyer  /  Richmond Times-Dispatch
Workers and U.S. soldiers tend to the wounded Tuesday after an attack on a crowded dining hall at a U.S. base in Mosul, Iraq.
updated 12/22/2004 11:35:31 AM ET 2004-12-22T16:35:31

The U.S. military launched an investigation Wednesday into the cause of a devastating explosion in a mess tent at a base in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul that killed 22 people and injured 72 in one of the deadliest attacks on American troops since the start of the war.

Officials told NBC News that investigators have reached no conclusions about whether the attack -- which happened as U.S. soldiers sat down to lunch Tuesday in their Forward Operating Base Marez  -- involved a rocket or a suicide bomb. 

“We’re still sorting that out,” one military official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Frustrated officials at the Pentagon said there appeared to be forensic evidence that "could go either way." 

On Tuesday, a radical Sunni Muslim group, the Ansar al-Sunnah Army, which claimed responsibility for the attack, said it was a “martyrdom operation” — a reference to a suicide bomber — that targeted the mess hall.

Some officials, who were initially convinced the tent was hit by a rocket, said Wednesday they were unsure what caused the explosion. But, others remained convinced it was a rocket.

Military officials said one of the most compelling pieces of evidence was that the explosive device contained ball bearings, which could indicate a bomb, either planted or carried by a suicide bomber.  But the 122mm rocket can also carry a similar load of ball bearings, according to the Pentagon.

Officials said they have no information about any forensic evidence that may have been recovered — such as a detonator, wiring, or personal effects — that would indicate a suicide bomber.  

There were no eyewitness accounts either way, officials said. No-one has said they noticed any Iraqis acting suspiciously or noticed any suspicious looking packages or knapsacks prior to the attack. Similarly, no-one could say positively they actually saw a rocket impact the tent, according to officials.

Lucky shot?
If it was a rocket, it would have been an incredibly lucky shot because the rockets fired by the enemy are extremely inaccurate, U.S. officials said.

And while there is concern that insurgents are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their attacks, the officials insisted there wasn't much they could do to improve the accuracy of their rockets.

Whatever caused the explosion, the officials acknowledged that the attack appeared to have been well-planned, and precisely timed to strike the mess hall tent just as hundreds of American and Iraqi soldiers, and private contractors, sat down to lunch.

The dead included 18 Americans — 14 servicemembers and four U.S. civilian contractors — and four Iraqis, the U.S. military command in Baghdad said Wednesday. Of the 72 wounded, 51 are U.S. military personnel and the remainder are American civilians, Iraqi troops, and other foreigners.

Halliburton Co., 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.

‘This is the worst we have seen’
At the military hospital near Mosul airfield, doctors and orderlies treated dozens of soldiers for burns, shrapnel wounds and damage to their eyes.

Video: Mosul eyewitness “This is the worst we have seen in the 11 months since we have been here,” said Master Sgt. David Scott, chief ward master for the hospital.

It was the latest in a week of deadly strikes across Iraq that highlighted the growing 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.

City sees increase in attacks
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.

Early Wednesday, the U.S. troops blocked Mosul’s five bridges over the Tigris River that link the western and eastern sectors of the city. As warplanes flew overhead, U.S. soldiers could be seen conducting sweeps through the eastern neighborhoods of Muthanna, Wahda and Hadabaa.

In a sign of the of the simmering tensions, most schools in the city were closed and few cars and people could be seen on the streets. Even traffic policemen were not at major intersections as usual.

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, 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.

Horrific scene
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.

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.

Video: Mosul aftermath 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.

Sgt. Kyle Wright said he was about to take a bite of chocolate cake when the blast knocked him out of his chair. Two other Virginia National Guardsmen picked him up and rushed him out of the chow-hall tent on Forward Operating Base Marez.

“I kind of went into the air,” Wright said as he lay in a hospital near Mosul airfield, recovering from wounds to his leg and back. “When I came to, I looked up and I saw open sky.”

The Ansar al-Sunnah Army, which claimed the responsibility for the blast, is believed to be a fundamentalist group that wants to turn Iraq into a strict Islamic state. The Sunni group claimed responsibility for the execution of 12 Nepalese hostages and other recent attacks in Mosul.

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.

NBC's Jim Miklaszewski is based at the Pentagon. The Associated Press contributed to this report.


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments