U.S. Opens Probe Into Mosul Base Attack

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The brigadier general who investigated abuse at Abu Ghraib prison is heading the U.S. military's probe into how a suicide bomber infiltrated a U.S. Army base near Mosul and detonated a deadly explosion, authorities said Friday.

The team led by Brig. Gen. Richard P. Formica started its work in Mosul as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld paid a surprise Christmas Eve visit to the wounded soldiers at the base, part of a tour that also took him to Tikrit and Fallujah.

"Now we have a pretty good idea that it was a suicide bomber," said Lt. Col. Paul Hastings, a spokesman at the Mosul base. "(Formica) is going to investigate into the how's — how did that happen?"

Formica, an artillery commander, has already investigated detention practices by special forces in Iraq, including allegations of torture and mistreatment of prisoners linked to the Abu Ghraib abuses scandal.

Hastings said the Mosul investigation will be "conducted quickly and thoroughly" but that there was no deadline for its conclusions.

The Mosul blast killed 22 people, most of them American soldiers and civilians — the deadliest single attack on a U.S. base in Iraq. It has prompted the military to reassess security at bases across the country in light of the bomber's success in apparently slipping into the camp and entering a tent crowded with soldiers eating lunch Tuesday.

The suicide bomber believed to have carried out the attack was probably wearing an Iraqi military uniform, the U.S. military said Thursday.

On Thursday, U.S. Marines battled insurgents in Fallujah in the heaviest fighting there in weeks. The clashes erupted as nearly 1,000 residents returned to the devastated city for the first time since a major U.S. offensive last month that drove out most of the militants.

At least three Marines were killed Thursday's fighting, underlining the tenuous security situation as the United States and its Iraqi allies try to bring quiet before national elections Jan. 30.

On Friday, around 4,000 more displaced citizens returned to Fallujah to inspect their devastated homes. Iraq's interim security minister Kassim Daoud said people were insisting on returning despite sporadic fighting there over the past weeks and unexploded ordinance on the streets. Much of the city remains uninhabitable.

Returning the estimated 250,000 Fallujans is a key step in the attempt to restore stability in the city as the elections approach. American commanders have hailed the offensive to retake Fallujah as a major tactical victory. But pockets of insurgents remain in the city and many guerrillas apparently slipped out of Fallujah to operate elsewhere.

Meanwhile, a powerful Sunni Muslim group, the Association of Muslim Scholars, renewed its calls Friday for postponing the Jan. 30 elections and called for holding a national reconciliation conference.

"We are not against the elections, but we want fair elections that represent the Iraqi people. Since this is not possible at the time being ... we call for postponing it," senior cleric Sheik Ahmed Abdul-Ghafour al-Samaraie told worshippers at Baghdad's Um Al-Qura mosque during Friday prayers.

Clerics from the association had urged Iraq's Sunni minority to boycott the election to protest the U.S. offensive in Fallujah, calling plans to hold the vote in January "madness."

In new violence Friday, U.S. troops and insurgents clashed in the city center of Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, leaving four civilians wounded, police Maj. Saadoun Matroud said.

In Ramadi, an insurgent hotbed west of Fallujah, a group of gunmen stormed the mayor's office Thursday afternoon and blew it up, destroying a large part of the building, a U.S. military statement said. There were no casualties.

Elsewhere, a lawyer for Tariq Aziz, a former senior aide for Saddam Hussein, said Friday he had met his client, who has been in jail since April 2003.

Aziz, was among 12 defendants, including Saddam, who appeared before a judge to hear charges against them in July. He is expected to be interrogated by an investigative judge soon.

The first two top officials to be questioned — an early phase in the trial process — were Ali Hassan al-Majid, better known as Chemical Ali for his role in poison gas attacks against the Kurdish minority, and former Defense Minister Gen. Sultan Hashim. They appeared in court a week ago.

Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi has been pushing ahead quickly to launch trials for Saddam's inner circle.