and JEREMY REDMON in Mosul
An explosion in a US Army mess tent at lunchtime in a base near the northern city of Mosul killed at least 26 people and wounded 60 others in one of the most lethal attacks on American forces in Iraq since the invasion. The dead included US troops, American and foreign contractors and Iraqi security troops.
The force of the explosion knocked soldiers off their feet and out of their seats. A fireball enveloped the top of the tent, and shrapnel sprayed into the diners. Amid the screaming and thick smoke, soldiers turned their lunch tables upside down, placed the wounded on them and gently carried them into the parking lot. "Medic! Medic!" soldiers shouted. Medics rushed into the tent and hustled the rest of the wounded out on stretchers.
Outside, scores of troops crammed into concrete bomb shelters. Others wobbled around the tent and collapsed, dazed by the blast. "I can’t hear! I can’t hear!" one female soldier cried as a friend hugged her.
Near the front entrance to the canteen, troops tended a soldier with a gaping head wound. Within minutes, they zipped him into a black body bag. Three more bodies were in the parking lot.
Soldiers scrambled back into the hall to check for more wounded. The explosion blew out a huge hole in the roof of the tent. Puddles of bright red blood, lunch trays and overturned tables and chairs covered the floor.
Grim-faced soldiers growled angrily and cursed as they worked on the wounded. Sergeant Evan Byler steadied himself on one of the concrete bomb shelters. He was eating chicken tenders and macaroni when the bomb hit. The blast knocked him out of his chair. When the smoke cleared, Sgt Byler took off his shirt and wrapped it around a seriously wounded soldier.
After the wounded man was taken away, the NCO held the bloody shirt in his hand, not quite sure what to do with it. "It’s not the first close call I have had here," said Sgt Byler, from Virginia. He survived a blast from an improvised explosive device while riding in a vehicle this year.
The heavy American losses are likely to lead to inquiries about why so many soldiers were crowded into the mess tent. The US Army said there had been a single explosion but did not know if it was caused by a suicide bomber, a rocket or a mortar round. The militant group Ansar al-Sunna later claimed it had made a suicide attack. Insurgents have fired mortars at the chow hall more than 30 times this year. One round killed a female soldier with the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division in the summer as she scrambled for cover. Workers are building a new steel and concrete chow hall for the soldiers down the dusty dirt road.
Lieutenant Dawn Wheeler, of Richmond-based 276th Engineer Battalion, was waiting in line for chicken tenders when a round hit on the other side of a wall from her. A soldier who had been standing beside her was on the ground, with shrapnel buried deep in his neck. "We all have angels on us," she said as she pulled away in a Humvee. The officer quickly joined other officers from the 276th for an emergency meeting minutes after the blast.
Major James Zollar, the unit’s acting commander, spoke to more than a dozen of his officers in a voice thick with emotion. He urged them to keep their troops focused on their missions. "This is a tragic, tragic thing for us but we still have missions," he told them. "It’s us, the leaders, who have to pull them together." Major Zollar eventually turned the emergency meeting over to Chaplain Eddie Barnett. He led the group in prayer. "Help us now, God, in this time of this very tragic circumstance," the padre said. "We pray for your healing upon our wounded soldiers." With heads hung low, the soldiers trudged outside. They had work to do.
The US military position in northern Iraq has been deteriorating rapidly in the past two months. During the first nine months of the occupation, Mosul was portrayed as a model for the rest of Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division firmly in charge. Guerrilla warfare was slower to develop and was not as well organised as further south in Fallujah and in the Sunni Arab provinces around Baghdad.