A 122mm rocket slammed into a mess tent Tuesday at a military base near the northern Iraq city of Mosul, ripping through the ceiling and spraying shrapnel as U.S. soldiers sat down to lunch. Officials said 22 people were killed in one of the most devastating attacks against Americans in Iraq since the start of the war.
The dead included 20 Americans, 15 of them servicemembers and five civilian contractors. Two Iraqi soldiers also were killed. Sixty-six people were wounded, including 42 U.S. troops, Capt. Brian Lucas, a military spokesman in Baghdad, said early Wednesday.
CBS News Correspondent Kimberly Dozier reports that the attack came days before a hardened, bunkered dining hall was scheduled to be completed, to replace the less stable mess hall at Forward Operating Base Marez near Mosul.
A spokeswoman for Halliburton, the Army contractor that provides food services through its KBR subsidiary, said four company employees and three subcontractors were killed. Safety is a concern for the contract workers, as well.
"It is extremely difficult to prevent these appalling and horrific attacks," Halliburton spokeswoman Wendy Hall said Tuesday.
Attacks from rockets or mortars — what the military calls "indirect fire" — have been commonplace for months 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.
President Bush said the attack 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."
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Inside the tent, U.S. soldiers reacted quickly. 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.
A U.S. military official said authorities believe the damage was caused by at least one large-caliber artillery round or rocket. Another official said it was possible the explosive had been planted.
In a similar recent attack, 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.
At many bases — including Marez — 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.
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 battallion'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.
Meanwhile, Mr. Bush said Tuesday's deadly attack should not derail elections scheduled for next month and 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," Mr. Bush said.
Both American and Iraqi forces use the base 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.
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.
Hall said the deaths in the Mosul attack bring to 62 the number of Halliburton workers or subcontractors killed in and around Iraq.
"These brutal attacks are unsettling, appalling and very sad for everyone," Hall said in a statement. "We are doing everything we can to assist the people on the ground."
The identities of the attackers were unknown, though the Ansar al-Sunnah Army claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement on the Internet. It said the attack was a "martyrdom operation" targeting a mess hall.
Ansar al-Sunnah is believed to be a fundamentalist group that wants to turn Iraq into an Islamic state like Afghanistan's former Taliban regime. The Sunni group claimed responsibility for beheading 12 Nepalese hostages and other recent attacks in Mosul.
Earlier, Brig. Gen. Carter Ham, commander of Task Force Olympia, said U.S. military personnel, American and foreign nationals and Iraqi soldiers were among the dead. "It is indeed a very, very sad day," Ham said.
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.
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.
A huge hole was blown in the roof of the tent, and puddles of blood, lunch trays and overturned tables and chairs covered the floor, Redmon reported.
Near the front entrance, troops tended a soldier with a serious head wound, but within minutes, they zipped him into a black body bag, he said. Three more bodies were in the parking lot.
"It was very hard to watch and very chaotic but at the same time what amazed me was that within 20 minutes the worst of the wounded, the ones who needed the most attention, were out of there. It was just a remarkable effort by all the soldiers involved. From what I could see they performed flawlessly," Redmon said.
In addition to the two soldiers in the Richmond unit, two soldiers from Maine National Guard's 133rd Engineer Battalion were killed and 12 were wounded, the Portland Press Herald reported.
Redmon and photographer Dean Hoffmeyer are embedded with the 276th Engineer Battalion, a Richmond National Guard unit that can trace its lineage to the First Virginia Regiment of Volunteers formed in 1652. George Washington and Patrick Henry were two of its early commanders. Henry created the unit's motto, "Liberty or Death."
The base is also used by members of the Stryker Brigade, based at Fort Lewis, Wash., a military official said.
Before Tuesday, 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. The crash occurred as the choppers maneuvered to avoid ground fire.