Blast Rips Through U.S. Base in Iraq, Causing Many Casualties

By CHRISTINE HAUSER and RICHARD A. OPPEL Jr.

New York Times

December 21, 2004

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Dec. 21 - A powerful explosion ripped through an American military base in northern Iraq today, causing many casualties, the American military said.

A short announcement from the military said the explosion occurred at noon Iraqi time near the city of Mosul, scene of raids by insurgents on police stations in the past six weeks.

Those attacks are part of a brutal campaign of terrorizing and intimidating Iraqis working either for the Iraqi security services or for American forces.

More than 100 bodies have turned up in the city in recent weeks.

Television and news agency reports said that 22 people had been killed and 50 wounded. A Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Col. Barry Venable, said by telephone that he could not confirm those numbers, or other details.

Sgt. Joseph Sanchez, a military spokesman in Iraq, said details of today's attack were still coming in and the military was assessing the number of casualties. He said the cause of the explosion had not yet been determined.

The attack is part of an increasing pattern of violence as the elections planned for Jan. 30 approach. On Sunday car bombers struck crowds in Najaf and Karbala, killing at least 61 people and wounding about 120 in those two holy Shiite cities. In Baghdad, about 30 insurgents hurling grenades and firing machine guns pulled three election officials from their car in the midst of morning traffic and killed them with shots to the head.

Today's explosion came on the same day as a surprise visit to Baghdad by Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, who vowed that the war against the insurgents would be won and elections held on time.

Mr. Blair's visit symbolized the dangers posed by insurgents trying to disrupt plans for the January polls.

The prime minister flew into the capital on a military aircraft and then, avoiding the roads that have been frequent targets in bombings and ambushes, boarded a helicopter that took him to central Baghdad, escorted by American Apache attack helicopters.

He held a news conference in the so-called International Zone, a fortified, heavily guarded walled compound for Iraqi government officials and foreign forces. The brief visit to the capital was unannounced for security reasons.

Mr. Blair used his visit, his first to Baghdad since Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003, to symbolize Britain's support for the national elections.

"Security is really heavy," Mr. Blair said, standing at a podium during the news conference with the Iraqi interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, at his side. "You can feel the sense of danger that people live in here."

Mr. Blair met Iraqi elections workers, three of whose colleagues had been pulled from their vehicles in broad daylight on a busy Baghdad street on Sunday and shot dead in a brazen attack by gunmen who did not even bother to cover their faces.

Calling them heroes, Mr. Blair pointed out that Iraq's election workers must go to and from their homes and commission headquarters in the city as they carry out planning for an elections process that has been disrupted by bloodshed.

Insurgents have been trying to disrupt or prevent the scheduled vote and the campaigning process by an Iraqi government that they see as collaborating with occupying foreign forces. The attacks on the Iraqi police and national guard officers have complicating plans to train enough local forces that would ideally spearhead security at polling stations.

Britain has some 8,000 troops in Iraq, mainly stationed in the south of the country, centered on the city of Basra.