Three meals and two attacks a day

Safety of dining hall tent was troops' nagging fear

Forward Operating Base

December 22, 2004|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - In a horrifying way, the explosion that tore apart the giant tent that served as a dining hall at an American military base near Mosul, Iraq, was neither unusual nor unexpected.

Soldiers at Forward Operating Base Marez south of Mosul had already described in e-mails to their families their unease about the safety of the dining hall - a long, high tent pitched atop a concrete pad - and the ability of Iraqi insurgents to target the base.

Easter Sunday was particularly bad, as Adam Szafarn, a 23-year-old specialist with the Maine National Guard, told his family.

"There was just round after round after round," his mother, Sheila Szafarn, said yesterday in a telephone interview from South Portland, Maine, recalling that her son and other soldiers spent much of that day in concrete bomb shelters. "They couldn't go anywhere. They were just riding it out."

Her son e-mailed her after yesterday's attack to say he was safe, but his mother remembered earlier messages about the dining tent. "He doesn't like going to the dining hall, because of the lack of safety," she said. "It's a soft building."

Thanks to a plentiful supply of mortars and rocket-propelled grenades and a lack of American troops to patrol the perimeter of forward bases, Iraqi insurgents are able to strike with relative ease.

Mortars rained down on the chow hall more than 30 times this year, according to a report by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, which has a reporter embedded with soldiers there. One round killed a soldier last summer as she scrambled for cover, the paper's Web site said.

Just hours before the mess hall blast, a soldier from a Virginia National Guard unit was awarded a Purple Heart for wounds she suffered in a mortar attack in October targeting another part of the base.

The situation at the Mosul base echoes the daily routine of soldiers at Forward Operating Base Anaconda - dubbed "Mortaritaville" - farther south outside Balad. At least a half-dozen soldiers and contractors have been killed and nearly 100 wounded there since April. There have been about two attacks a day since July.

Retired Army Lt. Gen. John Riggs, a Vietnam War veteran who shared responsibility for modernizing the Army before stepping down earlier this year, said such attacks would not occur if more troops were on the ground to provide security for American operating bases and supply hubs.

"If you are going to secure an area, you must dominate an area," he said. "That's done with a physical presence, with constant patrolling. There'll probably have to be additional forces on the ground whether we like it or not."

An Army officer with experience in Iraq and now based at the Pentagon complained yesterday about the decrease in the number of U.S. troops this year in the Mosul area.

In February, the 101st Air Assault Division was responsible for providing security in northern Iraq with about 17,000 soldiers. The division was replaced by a 4,000-soldier brigade from Fort Lewis, Wash., and 4,500 National Guard and Reserve soldiers.

It's unclear whether more soldiers will be dispatched to help protect the bases.

Brig. Gen. Oscar B. Hilman, commander of the 81st Brigade Combat Team, a National Guard unit from Washington state that operates Forward Operating Base Anaconda, twice this year requested 500 to 700 more soldiers to beef up security outside the base. But he said in October that his requests for more troops had been denied.

The Pentagon recently announced that the American troop levels in Iraq would increase to 150,000 from 138,000 by January. The increase will come about largely by extending by about two months the deployment of soldiers already in Iraq. But the expanded number of U.S. troops is designed to provide more security for the coming Iraqi elections.

There was little detail yesterday about what type of weapon was used to attack the mess hall or what, if any, steps are being taken to increase security.

A reporter for the Portland Press Herald who was at the base following Maine troops told CNN that the explosion yesterday seemed much louder than previous ones there.

Army Brig. Gen. Carter Ham, commander of Task Force Olympia, which is based at Marez, said yesterday that officials "don't know the source of that explosion, and the investigation is ongoing by explosives experts to determine the source."

Ed Heasley, curator of the U.S. Army Ordnance Museum at Aberdeen Proving Ground, said the attack on the Mosul base could have been carried out by an RPG-7, a shoulder-fired rocket-propelled grenade launcher that is cheap, reliable and easy to use. It has become one of the weapons of choice for insurgents.

Heasley said an insurgent with an RPG-7 "can get a general fix on where they want to aim it. Aim it up in the air and hope it comes down on the right spot."

During a weapons buy-back program in the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad recently, U.S. soldiers collected about 700 RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenades and 400 mortar shells, along with a large number of lighter weapons.

Riggs, the retired Army general, said the attack precisely on a mess hall at lunch time would likely indicate more than luck. Perhaps a sympathizer inside the base was able to "walk off" the distance to the mess hall. "That almost has to be a physical survey," he said.

While soldiers were caring for the dead and wounded yesterday at Marez, workers down a dusty road at the base were constructing a new steel and concrete chow hall for the soldiers.

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