KUWAIT CITY (CNN) — U.S. military officials, revising the death toll in a rocket attack on a mess tent in northern Iraq, now say that 14 soldiers, four U.S. contractors and four Iraqi security personnel were killed.
At one point, up to 19 soldiers were listed as dead in Tuesday’s attack in Mosul. The rocket slammed into the packed mess tent at lunchtime.
Another 72 people were wounded, including 51 soldiers, Lt. Col. Steve Boylan said.
At a desert military base outside of Kuwait City early Wednesday, the bodies of U.S. soldiers killed in the attack arrived on a C-130 cargo plane.
“Very quietly, very deliberately the remains in body bags … were brought off by the soldiers who saluted their fallen comrades,” CNN’s Barbara Starr reported. “They were placed very reverently in some vehicles and then driven off to mortuary affairs specialists here at the air force facility in Kuwait.
“They will then begin their final journey home to the United States.”
Pentagon officials said insurgents fired four rockets at Forward Operating Base Marez about noon (4 a.m. ET). It was not known exactly how many troops were inside the mess tent at the time of the attack.
One rocket hit the dining facility. Another exploded outside without inflicting any casualties, and the other two missed the base completely, the officials said.
Jeremy Redmon, a newspaper reporter embedded with troops at the base, told CNN the blast “knocked soldiers off their feet and out of their seats.” (Full story)
The Iraqi militant group Jaish Ansar Al-Sunna claimed responsibility for the attack in a posting on Islamist Web sites, saying it was a suicide attack carried out by one person. CNN could not confirm the authenticity of the claim.
The group has claimed responsibility for previous attacks, including the beheadings of a Turkish truck driver and a Kurdish official and the slayings of 12 Nepalese hostages. In its statement, it said it shot video of the attack to be released later.
In Washington, President Bush expressed his “heartfelt condolences” to the families of those killed, adding that U.S. troops in Iraq are engaged in a “vital mission.” (Full story)
The attack on Camp Marez was one of the deadliest single attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.
In November 2003, 17 soldiers were killed when two Black Hawk helicopters collided while evading fire over Mosul.
‘A level of vulnerability’
CNN personnel who have visited Camp Marez said the dining area is a tent-like facility with no hardened protection — and that soldiers had specifically raised concerns that they could be targeted by insurgents at meal time.
One had told CNN it was only a matter of time before there was an attack on the mess hall.
“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,” said Lt. Col. Paul Hastings, an officer at Camp Marez.
Overall the base has good protection, Hastings said, and a new dining facility is being built.
Bill Nemitz, a reporter with the Press-Herald newspaper of Portland, Maine, who was embedded at the base, said the new facility is made of concrete and was originally set to be completed by Christmas, but construction had slowed and the building is not near completion.
Nemitz said the base’s chief medical officer in April expressed concern about the mess hall being targeted and was charged with drawing up a “mass casualty” plan.
Mosul has been a site of repeated attacks in recent weeks. When the U.S. military launched a major offensive in Falluja in November, there was concern some insurgents had fled to Mosul and would launch attacks from there. The military recently conducted an offensive against insurgents in Mosul, but the violence has continued.
With about 1.7 million people, Mosul is Iraq’s third-largest city. It is located near the country’s northern oil fields.
More than 1,300 U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq since the invasion that toppled Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein — most of them during the guerrilla campaign that followed the collapse of Saddam’s government in April 2003.
UPDATE — Seems there might be evidence of a bomb within the mess tent.
Investigators in Iraq are looking into whether an explosion that killed 22 in a mess hall was caused by a bomb placed inside the tent or by a mortar or rocket attack from outside.
Initial reports speculated that it may have been a rocket attack, but Task Force Olympia spokesman Lt. Col. Paul Hastings said Wednesday “the cause is unknown.” FBI forensic experts were flown to the scene of the blast at Camp Marez outside Mosul.
Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz said it was “certainly a possibility” that a bomb was placed inside the tent. “That’s the reason we have our experts up there,” he said.
Metz said the forensic experts should be able to narrow down the cause by examining the materials that were used to make the device.
Asked whether witnesses heard a sound like that of an incoming rocket, Metz said wasn’t sure, but “the ones that I have heard, you’re right — there is a distinct noise from an incoming missile.”
Stainless steel kitchen equipment inside the tent was pitted with circular holes — a possible sign of ball bearings used as shrapnel to increase the deadliness of a bomb, Hastings said.
“There are perfectly round perforations around the dining hall, in the stainless steel service equipment,” Hastings said. They were “very symmetrical perforations, like ball bearings or bb’s.”
In a revision to an earlier casualty toll, Lt. Col. Steve Boylan on Wednesday said 22 people — 14 U.S. soldiers, four U.S. civilians and four Iraqi security forces — died in Tuesday’s explosion. Seventy-two people were wounded, including 51 soldiers.