New reinforced dining hall was nearly complete

A cloud of smoke covers a dining area inside a mess tent at Forward Operating Base Marez in Mosul, Iraq, on Tuesday, moments after an apparent insurgent rocket attack.
A cloud of smoke covers a dining area inside a mess tent at Forward Operating Base Marez in Mosul, Iraq, on Tuesday, moments after an apparent insurgent rocket attack. Dean Hoffmeyer / Richmond Times-Dispatch
/ Source: The Associated Press

Worried about recent artillery attacks on mess halls in Iraq, the U.S. military was just days away from completing a reinforced dining area at the camp Mosul where a mess tent was ripped by an explosion that killed more than 20 people on Tuesday.

On Tuesday, before the hardened dining hall at Forward Operating Base Marez could be completed, an explosion tore through a mess tent where hundreds of troops were sitting down to lunch.

The cause of the blast remained under investigation on Wednesday, with some officials questioning early accounts that a rocket had hit the mess tent and saying that a suicide bomber could have been responsible for the attack.

But the targeting of U.S. troops while they are eating is nothing new.

Attacks from rockets or mortars — what the military calls “indirect fire” — have been commonplace at U.S. bases in the Mosul area as well as other insurgency hot spots in Iraq. Dining halls are a prime target because they offer a readily identifiable place where lots of troops congregate at predictable times.

Other mess tents targeted
For example, a mortar round hit near the mess hall of a U.S. base in Tikrit during dinner one night in March. The round didn’t explode and no one was injured. Insurgents also launched rockets that month which exploded near a large military dining hall within Baghdad’s Green Zone where U.S. and Iraqi government offices are located. Another mortar round injured three soldiers at a dining hall on another Baghdad base in February.

“It is extremely difficult to prevent these appalling and horrific attacks,” said Wendy Hall, spokeswoman for Halliburton Co., the Army contractor that provides food services in Iraq. She said some Halliburton employees and subcontractors died in Tuesday’s attack.

At many bases — including Marez in Mosul — troops have been required to wear their body armor and helmets while in the dining hall because of the threat of attack. Most of the attacks don’t hit any structures or cause any injuries, however.

The military was building a bunker-like mess hall at the Marez base to protect against such indirect fire attacks, Defense Department officials said. The new dining hall was part of continuing efforts to make the base safer, said Lt. Col. Paul Hastings, a spokesman for the U.S. military command in Mosul.

“There is a level of vulnerability when you go in there and you don’t feel like there’s a ... hard roof over your head,” Hastings told CNN.

Deadly mortar attacks at camp
One soldier was killed near the dining hall at Marez in a mortar attack in May, and two soldiers were killed in November when mortars exploded in their living area on the same base.

Maj. John Nelson, the battalion’s chief surgeon, told a reporter earlier this year about plans for a possible attack on the dining hall. Nelson told the Portland (Maine) Press Herald that military statistics showed that if a 60mm mortar shell hit the dining hall with 400 soldiers inside, an estimated 12 would die no matter what medics could do.

President Bush said Tuesday’s deadly attack should not derail Iraqi elections scheduled for next month and that he hoped relatives of those killed would find solace in the service their loved ones provided.

“We just want them to know that the mission is a vital mission for peace,” Bush told reporters after visiting wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Hospital.

Bush said the violence, part of a continuing wave of unrest in Iraq, should not affect elections scheduled for Jan. 30.

“I’m confident democracy will prevail in Iraq,” he said.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan, responding to a question about how Iraqis would be able to get to some 9,000 polling places for the elections if U.S. troops can’t secure their own bases, said there was “security and peace” in 15 of Iraq’s 18 provinces.

‘We are making important progress’
“There are tough challenges that remain ... but we are making important progress on the ground,” McClellan said. “We also have to keep in mind that the terrorists and Saddam loyalists have adapted and changed their tactics. We adapt and change with that as well to meet those ongoing security challenges.”

Both American and Iraqi forces use the base that was attacked Tuesday. A surge in killings and other attacks in Mosul in recent weeks has targeted members of the Iraqi security forces in particular, with the bodies of many Iraqi soldiers found dumped in the streets as a warning to others.

Halliburton subsidiary KBR has gotten more than $8 billion worth of work supporting U.S. forces in Iraq, performing functions such as building and maintaining housing, washing clothes, delivering supplies and serving food. As on the base attacked Tuesday, KBR typically runs the mess halls in cavernous tents, which include cafeteria-style serving lines as well as tables piled with fresh fruit, soft drinks and pastries.