Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Precision of Base Attack Worries Military Experts

By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 22, 2004; Page A01


In April 2003, as the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq was ending, the Pentagon projected in a formal planning effort that the U.S. military occupation of the country would end this month.

Instead, December 2004 brought one of the deadliest single incidents of the war for U.S. forces. More than 80 casualties were suffered yesterday by U.S. troops, civilian contractors and Iraqi soldiers when a U.S. base near the northern Iraqi city of Mosul was blasted at lunchtime.

Defense officials said 15 of those killed in the attack on a mess tent at the city's airport were American soldiers -- more U.S. troops than have been lost in nearly any other major incident in the fighting, even during the spring 2003 invasion. Before yesterday, the worst incidents were the deaths of 17 soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division in the November 2003 collision of two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, also in Mosul, and, two weeks before that, the loss of 15 soldiers when a CH-47 Chinook transport helicopter crashed west of Baghdad. All three occurred after President Bush's May 2003 declaration that major combat operations in Iraq had ended.

The major difference between the latest attack and the earlier incidents is that it was an attack on a U.S. base, rather than on troops in transit in vulnerable aircraft. That difference appears to reflect both the persistence of the insurgency and its growing sophistication, as experts noted that it seemed to be based on precise intelligence. Most disturbingly, some officers who have served in Iraq worried that the Mosul attack could mark the beginning of a period of even more intense violence preceding the Iraqi elections scheduled for Jan. 30.

"On the strategic level, we were expecting an horrendous month leading up to the Iraqi elections, and that has begun," retired Army Col. Michael E. Hess said.

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