An explosion ripped through a mess tent at a military base in Mosul where hundreds of U.S. soldiers had just sat down to lunch Tuesday, and officials said 24 people were killed and more than 60 wounded. A radical Muslim group, the Ansar al-Sunnah Army, claimed responsibility for the deadliest attack on a U.S. base in Iraq.
The dead included U.S. military personnel, U.S. contractors, foreign national contractors and Iraqi army, said Brig. Gen. Carter Ham, commander of Task Force Olympia in Mosul.
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."
Lt. Col. Paul Hastings, a spokesman for Task Force Olympia, told CNN that the toll was 24 dead. He added that more than 60 were wounded.
Jeremy Redmon, a reporter for the Richmond, Va., Times-Dispatch embedded with the troops in Mosul said the dead included two soldiers from the Richmond-based 276th Engineer Battalion, which had just sat down to eat at Forward Operating Base Merez. He reported 64 were wounded, and civilians may have been among them, he said.
Officials could not break down the toll of dead or wounded among the groups. Reports also differed as to the cause of the blast at the camp, which is based outside the predominantly Sunni Muslim city about 220 miles north of Baghdad.
The base, also known as the al-Ghizlani military camp, is used by both U.S. troops and the interim Iraqi government's security forces.
Although military officials initially said rockets or mortar rounds struck the camp, Hastings said it was still under investigation.
"We do not know if it was a mortar or a place explosive," he said, describing it as a "single explosion."
The force knocked soldiers off their feet and out of their seats as a fireball enveloped the top of the tent and shrapnel sprayed into the area, Redmon said.
Amid the screaming and thick smoke in the tent, soldiers turned their tables upside down, placed the wounded on them and gently 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.
"I can't hear! I can't hear!" one female soldier cried as a friend hugged her.
A huge hole was blown in the roof of the tent, and puddles of blood, lunch trays and overturned tables and chairs covered the floor, Redmon reported.
Near the front entrance, troops tended a soldier with a serious head wound, but within minutes, they zipped him into a black body bag, he said. Three more bodies were in the parking lot.
"It is indeed a very, very sad day," Ham said.
It made no difference whether the casualties were soldiers or civilians, Americans or Iraqis, Ham said. "They were all brothers in arms taking care of one another," he said.
Redmon and photographer Dean Hoffmeyer are embedded with the 276th Engineer Battalion, a Richmond, Va., unit that can trace its lineage to the First Virginia Regiment of Volunteers formed in 1652. George Washington and Patrick Henry were two of its early commanders. Henry created the unit's motto, "Liberty or Death."
The Ansar al-Sunnah Army claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement on the Internet. It said the attack was a "martyrdom operation" targeting a mess hall in the al-Ghizlani camp.
Ansar al-Sunna is believed to be a fundamentalist group that wants to turn Iraq into an Islamic state like Afghanistan's former Taliban regime. The Sunni Muslim group claimed responsibility for beheading 12 Nepalese hostages and other recent attacks in Mosul.
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.
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 Arab area have increased dramatically in the past year and particularly since the U.S.-led military operation in November to retake the restive city of Fallujah from militants.
Earlier in the day, hundreds of students demonstrated in the center of the city, demanding that U.S. troops cease breaking into homes and mosques there.
Also Tuesday, Iraqi security forces repelled another attack by insurgents trying to seize a police station in the center of the city, the U.S. military said.
On Sunday, insurgents detonated two roadside bombs and a car bomb targeting U.S. forces in Mosul in three separate attacks. Other car bombs Sunday killed 67 people in the Shiite holy cites of 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 the Jan. 30 elections.
During his visit, Blair held talks with Allawi and Iraqi election officials, whom he called heroes for carrying out their work despite attacks. Three members of Iraq's election commission were dragged from the car and killed this week in Baghdad.
"I said to them that I thought they were the heroes of the new Iraq that's being created, because here are people who are risking their lives every day to make sure that the people of Iraq get a chance to decide their own destiny," Blair said at a joint news conference with Allawi.
Blair, who has paid a political price for going to war in Iraq, defended the role of Britain's 8,000 troops by referring to terrorism.
"If we defeat it here, we deal it a blow worldwide," he said. "If Iraq is a stable and democratic country, that is good for the Middle East, and what is good for the Middle East, is actually good for the world, including Britain.
Blair, whose trip to Iraq hadn't been disclosed for security reasons, urged Iraqis to back next month's elections.
"Whatever people's feelings and beliefs about the removal of Saddam Hussein, and the wisdom of that, there surely is only one side to be on in what is now very clearly a battle between democracy and terror," he said.
Allawi said his government was committed to holding the elections as scheduled, despite calls for their postponement owing to the violence.
"We have always expected that the violence would increase as we approach the elections," Allawi said. "We now are on the verge, for the first time in history, of having democracy in action in this country."
Blair flew into the Iraqi capital about 11 a.m. aboard a British military transport aircraft from Jordan. A Royal Air Force Puma helicopter flew from Baghdad airport to the city center, escorted by U.S. Black Hawk helicopters.
It was Blair's first visit to Baghdad and his third to Iraq since the dictator Saddam Hussein was toppled in April 2003. Blair visited British troops stationed around the southern Iraqi city of Basra in mid-2003 and in January. President Bush had paid a surprise visit to U.S. troops in Baghdad at Thanksgiving in 2003.