An explosion tore into a crowded mess tent at lunchtime today near Mosul, killing as many as 15 U.S. soldiers and several other people, the U.S. military said. More than 60 people were wounded.
"It is indeed a very, very sad day, but I would also say that in their typical magnificent manner, U.S. soldiers responded with bravery, with unselfish caring for one another," said Brig. Gen. Carter Ham of Task Force Olympia in Mosul.
A radical Muslim group, the Ansar al-Sunnah Army, claimed responsibility, saying the attack was a "martyrdom operation" targeting a mess hall in the al-Ghizlani camp, Associated Press reported. The base is used jointly by the U.S. and Iraq.
The dead included U.S. military personnel, U.S. contractors, foreign national contractors and Iraqi army, Ham said.
But there were conflicting reports about the number of casualties, with Lt. Col. Steven Boylan, spokesman for coalition forces in Baghdad, saying 15 U.S. troops were killed, according to AP. And Lt. Col. Paul Hastings, spokesman for Task Force Olympia, said 24 people died and 57 were wounded.
"The number is very chaotic, we've had different numbers," Hastings said.
The attack came the same day that British Prime Minister Tony Blair made a surprise visit to Baghdad and described the ongoing violence in Iraq as a "battle between democracy and terror."
Reports on the cause of the explosion varied, with some blaming rockets or mortars fired into the base and others saying a bomb may have exploded inside the mess hall tent. Bush called it a "rocket attack."
A day earlier, President Bush acknowledged that recent deadly attacks has raised questions among Americans about whether Iraqis will one day be able to take over from U.S. forces.
Today, President Bush said the attack should not derail elections scheduled for next month, and he said he hoped relatives 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.
Mosul, 225 miles northwest of Baghdad, has become a trouble spot since U.S. and Iraqi troops invaded the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, in November.
On Sunday, two roadside bombs and a car bomb targeting U.S. forces went off in three attacks over two hours. Other car bombs Sunday killed 67 people in Najaf and Karbala.
Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, warned Monday that insurgents are trying to foment sectarian civil war as well as derail elections scheduled for next month.
Jeremy Redmon, a reporter for the Richmond, Va., Times-Dispatch embedded with troops in Mosul, reported that members of the Richmond-based 276th Engineer Battalion were among hundreds who had just sat down for lunch in the giant tent, according to AP.
Amid the screaming and thick smoke in the tent, soldiers turned their tables upside down, placed the wounded on them and carried them into the parking lot, Redmon said.
Scores of troops crammed into concrete bomb shelters, while others wandered around in a daze and collapsed, he said.
The shelling blew a huge hole in the roof of the tent, and puddles of blood, lunch trays and overturned tables and chairs covered the floor, Redmond reported.
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 two choppers maneuvered to avoid ground fire from insurgents.