U.S. General Says Mosul Blast Appears to Be Suicide Bomb

By DAVID STOUT and JOHN O'NEIL

New York Times

December 23, 2004

WASHINGTON, Dec. 22 - Military investigators believe that a suicide bomber touched off the explosion that killed 22 people and wounded dozens of others Tuesday at an American base in Iraq, the Pentagon said today.

"At this point, it looks like it was an improvised explosive device worn by an attacker," Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a news briefing with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. "We will take appropriate steps to prevent potential future attacks of this nature."

The explosion ripped through a mess tent at Forward Operating Base Marez at lunchtime, killing at least 13 American soldiers. The base is on the edge of Mosul.

Today, American troops swept through Mosul, backed up by armored vehicles, jets and helicopter gunships, hunting for suspects, western news agencies reported. The city's streets were described as deserted.

The casualty figure from the explosion was lowered slightly today, from the 24 dead reported late Tuesday. In addition to the 13 American troops, five American civilians and three Iraqi National Guard members were killed, and one unidentified person described by the Army as a "non-U.S. person."

The militant Sunni group Ansar al-Sunna issued a statement over the Internet Tuesday taking responsibility for the attack and claiming that one of its fighters had carried out a "martyrdom operation" against forces it described as unbelievers and occupiers.

Mr. Rumsfeld and General Myers declined to go into detail today on the physical evidence that points to a suicide bomber.

Immediately after the explosion, it was clear to observers that the holes blasted into kitchen equipment were very round, at least suggesting the use of ball bearings, which have been a favorite weapon for suicide bombers in Israel and elsewhere.

A single foot-wide hole found in the tile floor of the mess hall, in the vicinity of the line where troops lined up with their trays, also seemed to suggest the presence of a bomber.

"If it was a rocket, you'd find traces of a rocket," General Myers said, suggesting that no traces of a rocket, or of a mortar shell, for that matter, had been found.

There were reports earlier in the day, broadcast by ABC, that a human torso and a backpack had been found amid the bloody wreckage in the mess tent. A more specific announcement was to be made later today in Iraq.

Asked whether the "non-U.S. person" among the dead was believed to have been the suicide bomber, the general said: "I think that's to be

determined. I don't want to speculate on that because we don't know."

The secretary addressed an obvious question: how could a suicide attacker get into a supposedly secure American military base and into an area where the troops might think they can relax and be safe?

A partial answer, Mr. Rumsfeld said, is that United States and Iraqi security forces have to be right every time. "An attacker only has to be right occasionally," Mr. Rumsfeld said.

One obvious difficulty in detecting insurgent attacks, General Myers said, is that "they can wear, and they do, clothes like any other Iraqi."

The officials were asked about the vetting that takes place before Iraqis are hired to work at American based. General Myers said a "fact sheet" would be made available.

An Associated Press reporter on the streets of Mosul today described the city as deserted, with most schools closed and traffic police absent from even major intersections.

American forces shut down Mosul's five bridges, and concentrated their raids in three neighborhoods in the eastern part of the city, the reporter said.

Reuters reported that Mosul's mayor had warned residents that anyone attempting to use the bridges last night would be shot.

The Army gave little details about the targets of the day's raids. "We are conducting offensive operations to target specific objectives," Lt. Col. Paul Hastings told Reuters.

But residents told the news agency that most Iraqis had decided to take no chances in the face of the show of force. "Students went to school but were told to go home. People went to the shops, saw American troops in the streets, and went home," said Ahmad, 25, a Mosul car dealer too anxious to give his surname.

The explosion at the base wounded 69 people, including 44 American military personnel. Today, wounded American soldiers and civilians were flown to to Ramstein Air Base in Germany, to be transferred to the Landstuhl Army Medical Center for treatment.

The explosion was the deadliest episode for American soldiers in Iraq since shortly after the invasion. Twenty-nine American troops were killed on March 23, 2003.

The largest previous death toll as a result of insurgent attack also took place in Mosul, on Nov. 15, 2003, when two helicopters dodging ground fire crashed into each other, killing 18 Americans.

Mr. Rumsfeld and General Myers said today, as they have before, that the bloodshed in Iraq, however ugly, is not surprising, given the fact that elections in that country are only weeks away, and that people who were rendered powerless by the overthrow of Saddam Hussein refuse to go away quietly.

"We have said all along we expected the violence to increase as we got closer to the election," Mr. Rumsfeld said. "These folks have a lot to lose," he said, referring to the insurgents.

Mr. Rumsfeld said his "thoughts and prayers" were with the dead and their relatives, and that seeing the grief of affected families "is something that I feel to my core."

"Our troops are making a difference," Mr. Rumsfeld said. "Let there be no doubt." United States military people - "America's true treasure," Mr. Rumsfeld called them - are helping to build a free Iraq and, by extension, spreading freedom into global corners where it does not yet thrive, the secretary said.

"We must do what it takes," the secretary said. "We must not allow people who chop off heads to control."

But while saying that the United States must not - and will not - abandon its mission in Iraq, Mr. Rumsfeld said that, in the end, permanent security in Iraq must be enforced by the Iraqis. "It's their country," he said.

David Stout reported from Washington for this article and John O'Neil from New York. Richard A. Oppel Jr. and Christine Hauser contributed reporting from Baghdad.