More trouble in Mosul

December 23, 2004

WHETHER THE devastating attack at an American base near Mosul was the handiwork of an Iraqi suicide bomber or insurgents firing rocket-propelled grenades, the explosion is yet another grim reminder of the Bush administration's mismanagement of the war. If the lack of properly armored vehicles was the last glaring omission, the blast at Forward Operating Base Marez highlights two other failings: limited perimeter security at camps and poor intelligence on the insurgents.

Pentagon officials indicated yesterday that an "improvised explosive device worn by an attacker" - in other words, a suicide bomber - appeared to be the culprit in the blast that killed at least 22, the majority of them American soldiers. If the bomber actually entered the mess hall, that would mean a shocking security breach. Such a finding would cast doubt on Iraqis who are working for American troops: translators and the like, on whom the U.S. military must rely to perform. An inside job would raise questions about the vetting process of local employees.

But the attack certainly suggests a weakness by U.S. military intelligence to assess the Iraqi insurgents' strategic plans and ability to penetrate U.S. camps. And the American people should be asking why.

One answer is that American officials who planned this war underestimated the strength of an insurgency and its popular support. President Bush's statement Monday that the insurgency "is having an effect" is the understatement of all possible understatements. Who is he kidding?

The camp security issue also relates directly to another pre-war planning fiasco - inadequate troop strength. According to former and present military officials quoted by The Sun's Tom Bowman yesterday, too few troops on the ground means fewer soldiers patrolling the exterior of base camps. Add to that the insurgents' ample supply of mortars, and the vulnerability of U.S. bases and camps increases. Mr. Bowman's reporting found a decrease in U.S. soldiers deployed in the Mosul area. In one case, a 17,000-soldier division was replaced by a brigade with two-thirds fewer soldiers. At other U.S. camps in Iraq, mortar attacks are a daily occurrence.

Officials at the Marez base recognized the vulnerability of the tented mess hall: They were in the process of replacing it with a steel and concrete building. But that didn't happen soon enough to spare nearly two dozen American families the grief of losing their loved ones in a war that has now claimed the lives of 1,319 U.S. servicemen and women and wounded 10,000.

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