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Iraq: U.S. Military Investigating Deadly Mosul Blast

Prague, 22 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. military investigators have begun work to determine what -- and who -- was behind yesterday's deadly blast in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul that killed 22 people, most of them U.S. soldiers.

Fourteen U.S. soldiers were killed in the explosion, which took place as troops and civilian workers were eating lunch in a large military tent. Four American civilian contractors and four Iraqi security soldiers were also reported killed in the blast. Dozens more were wounded.

Jeremy Redmon, a reporter for the Virginia-based newspaper "Richmond Times-Dispatch," witnessed the explosion and described the scene to U.S. NBC News. "A huge explosion rocked the whole building. I looked up and about 50 [meters] from me there was a gigantic fireball in the ceiling of this tent," Redmon said. "It is really just a cavernous tent. There were hundreds of soldiers in there having lunch at the time."

It was one of the deadliest days for American forces since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in spring 2003.

Ahmad Said, a correspondent with Radio Free Iraq, reported from Mosul that U.S. and Iraqi officials have imposed a curfew and other security measures in the wake of the blast.

"After the U.S. base was attacked, the governor of Mosul, Duraid Muhammad Dawud Kashmula, has imposed a curfew that came into effect at [4 a.m. this morning]," Said said. "As a result of this decision, all five bridges in Mosul have been closed, apart from one bridge that was reserved this morning for pedestrians to pass. As a result, there is very little traffic on both sides of the [Tigris] River in Mosul. In addition, schools and the University of Mosul have been closed as of today."

The attack underscores the difficulty coalition troops face in fighting a growing insurgency ahead of nationwide elections set for January.

A Sunni militant group, Ansar Al-Sunnah, has said one of its suicide bombers is behind the blast.

U.S. officials say many militants, including members of Ansar Al-Sunnah, have been operating in Mosul since they were driven out of Al-Fallujah during last month's U.S.-led counterinsurgency.

The group has claimed responsibility for more than 1,000 deaths during the past 15 months.

U.S. military authorities say it is too soon to tell what caused the blast.

Charles Heyman, a senior analyst with the Jane's defense information group, said that the explosion -- which tore a hole in the concrete floor and sprayed the tent with shrapnel -- may have been the result of a mortar bomb built to explode over the target.
A Sunni militant group, Ansar Al-Sunnah, has said one of its suicide bombers is behind the blast.

"We're not 100 percent sure as to how this actually happened," Heyman said. "But I think that the evidence is beginning to suggest to us now that it may well have been a mortar bomb, and it may have been a mortar bomb on an air burst. And that's why we've had so many casualties. [It would have] burst just above the dining facility. Then basically lots and lots of pieces of shrapnel ripped into the facility itself, and that's why we've got so many killed and so many wounded."

U.S. military bases and Iraqi National Guard facilities have been a constant target for insurgents, whose violence combines fierce anti-Americanism with a desire to block national elections scheduled for January.

Journalist Redmon said that the dining tent at the Mosul base had been hit with mortar fire at least 30 times already this year.

Heyman said it's not surprising militants were able to attack the U.S. facility. What is surprising, he said, is that an attack of such deadly consequence hasn't happened before.

"It may well be that the insurgents have done quite a lot of reconnaissance. As an insurgent group, you have to get lucky from time to time," Heyman said. "You carry out attack after attack after attack. The security forces manage to thwart you at almost every turn. [But] terrorists, insurgents, only have to get lucky once, and I think that this is probably what happened here. They got a lucky shot in exactly the right place for them, at the wrong time for the coalition."

U.S. President George W. Bush yesterday extended condolences to the families of the slain U.S. soldiers. But he said he remains confident democracy will prevail in Iraq.

The U.S. public, however, appears to have had doubts, even before the Mosul attack. An opinion poll (CNN/USA Today/Gallup) conducted over the weekend of 18-19 December showed that 47 percent of people surveyed -- when asked how the United States had handled Iraq during the past year -- said that things had gotten worse.

The Mosul attack may also raise questions about U.S. government commitments to the safety of U.S. troops in Iraq.

The Pentagon has recently come under criticism for its failure to provide fully armored vehicles for U.S. troops in Iraq. It has also extended tours of duty for thousands of soldiers.

The earlier mortar attacks on the Mosul dining tent had prompted officials to begin construction of a concrete dining hall. But that facility had not been finished in time to prevent yesterday's carnage.

Heyman of Jane's said that it is possible the U.S. military could have done more to prevent the attack. But he said facilities like dining tents are often low on the list of security priorities.

"This was a very, very large encampment," Heyman said. "The military priorities almost certainly would have been to try and protect the people who are outside on patrols, on protection duties on the various aspects of counterinsurgency warfare. And the actual facility -- the dining hall itself -- would probably have been lower down on that priority list. [It's] very, very difficult, unless you've got proper overhead cover, to protect against air bursts. And that's why we think that this was a mortar air burst."

Mosul is the third-largest city in Iraq and was comparatively peaceful through much of the U.S.-led campaign. But in recent months, it has become a battleground between insurgents and U.S. forces.

(Radio Free Iraq contributed to this report.)

[For the latest news on Iraq, see RFE/RL's webpage on "The New Iraq".]

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