Rocket strike kills 22 at U.S. base

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- A 122mm rocket slammed into a mess tent Tuesday at a military base near the northern city of Mosul, ripping through the ceiling and spraying shrapnel as U.S. soldiers sat down to lunch. Officials said 22 people were killed in the deadliest single attack against Americans in Iraq since the start of the war.

The dead included 20 Americans -- 15 of them servicemembers and five civilian contractors. Two Iraqi soldiers also were killed. Sixty-six people were wounded, including 42 U.S. troops, Capt. Brian Lucas, a military spokesman in Baghdad, said earlier today.

Before Tuesday, 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 choppers maneuvered to avoid ground fire.

Inside the tent, U.S. soldiers reacted quickly. With people screaming and thick smoke billowing, soldiers turned their lunch tables upside down, placed the wounded on them and gently carried them into the parking lot, said Jeremy Redmon, a reporter for the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch embedded with the troops in Mosul.

A radical Sunni Muslim group, the Ansar al-Sunnah Army, claimed responsibility for the attack -- the latest in a week of deadly strikes across Iraq that highlighted the unwavering power of the insurgents in the run-up to the Jan. 30 national elections.

President Bush said the explosion should not derail the elections and that he hoped relatives of those killed know that their loved ones died in "a vital mission for peace."

"I'm confident democracy will prevail in Iraq," he said.

The attack at Forward Operating Base Marez came hours after British Prime Minister Tony Blair made a surprise visit to Baghdad and spoke of a "battle between democracy and terror."

White House spokesman Scott McClellan, responding to a question about how Iraqis will be able to safely get to some 9,000 polling places if U.S. troops can't secure their own bases, said there was "security and peace" in 15 of Iraq's 18 provinces.

Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city, was relatively peaceful in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime last year. But insurgent attacks in the largely Sunni area have increased dramatically in the past year -- particularly since the U.S.-led military offensive in November to retake Fallujah from militants.

Like most mess halls at U.S. bases in Iraq, the dining area at Base Marez is covered with a tent. Insurgents have fired mortars at the mess hall more than 30 times this year, Redmon said.

Mortar attacks on U.S. bases, particularly on the huge white tents that serve as dining halls, have been frequent in Iraq for more than a year. Just last month, for example, a mortar attack on a Mosul base killed two troops with Task Force Olympia, the reinforced brigade responsible for security in much of northern Iraq.

Bill Nemitz, a columnist with the Portland Press Herald who was embedded with the troops in Mosul, told CNN that he heard "a lot of discussion" about the vulnerability of the tent.

Lt. Col. Paul Hastings, a spokesman for Task Force Olympia, acknowledged the tent's vulnerability and told CNN the military is building a new dining facility at the base -- a concrete structure that Nemitz said was supposed to have been ready for Christmas.

"There is a level of vulnerability when you go in there and you don't feel like there's a ... hard roof over your head," Hastings told CNN.

Base Marez, also known as the al-Ghizlani military camp, is three miles south of Mosul and is used by both U.S. troops and the interim Iraqi government's security forces. It once was Mosul's civilian airport but is now a heavily fortified area surrounded by blast walls and barbed wire. Its two main gates are guarded by U.S. troops; Iraqi National Guard members man checkpoints outside to prevent cars from getting close without being searched.

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