Iraqi city in lockdown after US base blasted
US forces sealed off entire districts of the Iraqi city of Mosul on Wednesday and raided homes in a hunt for suspects following a guerrilla attack that killed 18 Americans and four Iraqis.
Mosul's governor issued an order banning use of the five bridges that span the River Tigris in the city, and said anyone breaking the order would be shot. Residents said Iraq's third city was a virtual ghost town, with no one in the streets.
The order from Governor Duraid Kashmoula was broadcast on local television and came into effect at 4 a.m.
Military investigators are still probing whether Tuesday's attack on a dining tent at the Marez U.S. base in Mosul was a mortar strike or possibly even a suicide bomber. It was the deadliest attack on Americans since they invaded last year.
In Mosul, people were afraid: "Students went to school but were told to go home. People went to the shops, saw American troops in the streets, and went home," said Ahmad, 25, a car dealer who declined to give his surname.
"The place is shut down," said another resident, adding that mosques and markets were also virtually empty.
The U.S. military said a 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew, imposed several weeks ago, remained in place and confirmed it had stepped up operations in the search for suspects.
"We are conducting offensive operations to target specific objectives," Lieutenant Colonel Paul Hastings, a spokesman for U.S. forces in the area, said.
Witnesses said U.S. forces, backed by Iraqi National Guards, sealed off neighborhoods in western and southeastern Mosul and raided homes. "They're looking in the areas that are known hotspots," one resident in the west of the city said.
Hastings said the cause of the explosion was still unknown.
Two French journalists, freed after a 4-month hostage ordeal in Iraq, were heading home on Wednesday. The French government said no ransom had been paid to the kidnappers of Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot.
Opposition leaders said the government would in time have to explain its handling of the crisis, including why France's close ties with the Arab world had failed to secure the men's freedom earlier.
U.S. officials initially said a number of rocket and mortar rounds were fired at a mess tent in southwest Mosul, but a militant group claimed a suicide bomber was behind the attack. A further 72 people were wounded.
"A suicide bomber has not been ruled out," a U.S. Army official in Washington said late on Tuesday.
Giving the latest in a series of casualty updates, the military in Baghdad said 14 U.S. soldiers, four American civilians and four Iraqi security force members were killed.
Fifty-one of the wounded were U.S. military personnel. Of the 72 hurt, 43 were still being treated.
A spokesman in Mosul said it could take days before a clear picture emerged of what happened and who was killed.
"There's some tedious forensic work to be done. It could be a couple of days," said Captain Phil Ludvigson.
President Bush, who warned on Monday that the bombers were taking a toll, sent his condolences to the families. He called Iraq "a vital mission for peace" as a new poll showed most Americans believe the war was not worth it.
The attack was a reminder of the threat guerrillas pose, six weeks after U.S. troops stormed Falluja to quell a Sunni insurgency before Iraq holds national elections on Jan. 30.
"It was a tragic event, but it will not deter us from our mission," said Sergeant Steve Valley, a U.S. spokesman in Baghdad. "We're all here with the same purpose of ridding this country of these armed thugs and building a democracy."
The worst single U.S. military death toll since the war was 17 when two helicopters came down in Mosul late last year.
The attack took place when U.S. soldiers at Forward Operating Base Marez, a huge camp built round the city's airfield, were sitting down to lunch in a vast tented hall made of canvas and metal -- a type used throughout Iraq.
"A fireball enveloped the top of the tent, and pellet-sized shrapnel sprayed into the men," wrote witness Jeremy Redmon, a journalist for the U.S. Richmond Times-Dispatch newspaper.
Mosul, an ethnically mixed city of Arabs and Kurds, has slid into chaos over recent months, especially since guerrillas routed the U.S.-trained police in mid-November, as U.S. troops were concentrating on storming Falluja, west of Baghdad.
In the past two months alone nearly 200 people have been found dead, most of them Iraqis, in a city of two million.
U.S. commanders say Jordanian al Qaeda ally Abu Musab al-Zarqawi probably fled Falluja and moved his base to Mosul.
Iraqi group Ansar al-Sunna, a known force in the 18-month insurgency, said a suicide bomber was behind the blast.