Blast Likely a Suicide Bombing

The explosion that killed 22 people in a U.S. military mess hall in northern Iraq apparently was an inside job by a suicide bomber who managed to elude multiple layers of security, senior military officials said Wednesday.

U.S. military investigators reached the conclusion that the blast in Mosul on Tuesday was caused by a suicide bombing rather than a rocket after finding remnants of material that might have served as the bomber's backpack or vest, as well as widely dispersed body parts that probably belonged to the bomber, a senior military official said.

In the deadliest attack on a U.S. military base since the war began in March 2003, the bomber apparently packed ball bearings around a bomb strapped to his body to maximize the amount of shrapnel that tore through the crowd at noon, when the greatest number of soldiers would be present, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Military officials described their findings after a briefing by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Rumsfeld, in unusually somber remarks, also sought to alleviate criticism that he has treated troops and their families callously.

"I -- and I know others -- stay awake at night with concern for those at risk, with hope for their lives and for their success," he said, his voice cracking during opening remarks that he prepared himself. "And I want those who matter most -- the men and women in uniform and their families -- to know that."

Tuesday's attack occurred amid a rising campaign of intimidation by insurgents before national elections Jan. 30.

Rumsfeld, warning that the elections would not end the violence, echoed comments made by President Bush earlier in the week that the insurgents were having an adverse effect on efforts to stabilize Iraq.

"I think looking for a peaceful Iraq after the elections would be a mistake," Rumsfeld said. "I think our expectations level ought to be realistic about that."

Bush has been forced to defend Rumsfeld after he delivered what many considered to be a rebuff to a National Guard specialist who complained about inadequate protective equipment and after revelations that Rumsfeld used a signature machine for letters sent to families of slain soldiers. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup this week found that 52 percent of Americans believe Rumsfeld should resign.

Military officials said 14 U.S. troops, four U.S. civilian contractors and three Iraqi National Guard members were killed in the attack, along with one unidentified "non-U.S." victim, apparently the bomber.

Sixty-nine people were wounded. They included 44 U.S. troops, seven U.S. contractors, five U.S. civilians working for the Defense Department, two Iraqi civilians and 10 contractors of other nationalities. The nationality and occupation of one could not be determined, officials said.

Dozens of victims arrived Wednesday at the Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Eight patients were listed as critical. Others had shrapnel cuts, broken bones and other non-life threatening injuries. About 25 returned to duty, defense officials said.

"At this point it looks like it was an improvised explosive device worn by an attacker," Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the Pentagon briefing. "If it was a rocket, you'd find remnants of the rocket."

The investigation is continuing, but the finding that a suicide bomber was responsible for the attack contradicted early reports that a 122-millimeter rocket struck the fabric-covered tent at Forward Operating Base Marez.

"We will determine exactly what happened at FOB Marez and continue to work to ensure the safety and security of our people and our operating bases," Gen. George W. Casey, Jr., commander of the Multi-National Force in Iraq, said in a statement.

The attack marked the second time suicide bombers successfully penetrated a heavily fortified U.S. compound. On Oct. 14, two suicide bombers detonated explosives-laden backpacks inside Baghdad's heavily barricaded International Zone, killing six and injuring more than 18. Formerly called the Green Zone, the area houses the interim Iraqi government and the U.S. and British embassies.

In a statement on an Islamic Web site, a group calling itself as Ansar al Sunna claimed responsibility for the attack and claimed it was a suicide operation executed by a 24-year-old man who had worked on the base for two months. Military officials said they did not dispute the account, but also couldn't confirm it.

Officials at the base have been concerned about the possibility of an attack since late November, when a suspect arrested in a roundup in Mosul's Old Town was found with a document that contained minutes of a cell meeting that described an attack on U.S. forces, according to an ABC News report.

The revelation that a suicide bomber appeared responsible for the Mosul attack evoked comparisons to past suicide attacks on U.S. troops, including the 1983 bombing of a Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, that killed 241 and the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers complex in Dharan, Saudi Arabia, in which 19 servicemen died.

The Mosul bombing was especially devastating because it occurred inside a crowded mess tent, an area where soldiers assume they are safe. Troops commonly toss their helmets and protective vests onto chairs and floors at base mess halls across Iraq.

Recent attacks suggest the insurgents have deliberately aimed at dining facilities during mealtimes. In Ramadi on Nov. 27, a rocket harmlessly hit the dirt about 50 yards from the main mess hall shortly before noon.

In nearby Tikrit, where dud mortars rained down on the mess hall parking lot earlier this year, soldiers said they were not entirely surprised.

"We know they're aiming for the chow halls," said Mitchell Vanderark, 19, a 1st Infantry Division soldier from Grand Rapids, Mich. "If you think about it, it had to happen eventually."

The real surprise, said one senior military official on condition of anonymity, was that it hadn't happened sooner.

Rumsfeld said a key tactic of insurgents is the use of intimidation to prevent Iraqis from taking part in civic life and to deter potential informants.

"The enemy is effective," Rumsfeld said. "The enemy's got a brain. The enemy alters its tactics. As things happen on the ground, they see what we do to respond to it. They then change their tactic."

Responding to recent strong criticism of his performance, Rumsfeld told reporters at the Pentagon on Wednesday he felt the suffering of troops and their families.The 3,500 U.S. troops at the Marez base in southwest Mosul, including elements of the 1st Brigade of the Fort Lewis, Wash.-based 25th Infantry Division and the 276th ngineering Battalion from Richmond, Va., conduct security and support operations in and around Mosul.

In the first months after the U.S.-led invasion last year, Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city, was cited as a model of tranquillity in Iraq. However, it recently has been a trouble spot for the Americans and their allies.

Last month, while a U.S.-led force was attacking rebellious Fallujah, a surge of violent wracked Mosul. Nine of the city's 33 police stations were overrun by insurgents, and many police deserted. Some joined the militants.

On Wednesday, residents awakened to find the city of nearly 2 million in virtual lockdown by U.S. forces.

Sporadic gunfire rang through deserted streets beginning at 6 a.m. Schools closed. The military shut down the city's five main bridges and the local governor warned residents to stay home or risk being shot.

"We are conducting offensive operations to target specific objectives," said Sgt. Joseph Sanchez, a military spokesman in Mosul. "We always maintain an offensive mind set to disrupt the enemy."

Residents, who have been living with a 5 p.m. curfew since Nov. 11, said they are worried that Tuesday's deadly strike will prompt U.S. forces to launch a major offensive on the city.

"America is preparing its hand to put pressure on Mosul and plant the seeds of war, just as it did with Fallujah," said one Mosul resident, who said he was too frightened to be identified.

Times staff writers Edmund Sanders in Baghdad, Louise Roug in Tikrit, Jeffrey Fleishman in Berlin, Mark Mazzetti in Washington and special correspondent Roaa Ahmed in Mosul contributed to this report.