Group posts video on fatal bombing

Iraqi general denies attacker was in guard

December 27, 2004|By Colin McMahon | Colin McMahon,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraq's top military officer said yesterday that the suicide bomber who killed 22 people last week at a U.S. military base near Mosul was not a member of the Iraqi national guard, and he suggested that blame for the attack lay with a security breakdown at the base and not infiltrators among Iraqi forces.

Meanwhile, the radical Islamic group that claimed responsibility for the attack posted a video on the Internet naming the bomber and showing how a hand-drawn map of the base was used to plan the attack.

The video also showed what appeared to be the explosion, which ripped through a mess hall as hundreds of U.S. soldiers were sitting down to lunch Tuesday.

U.S. officials say the bomber was wearing an Iraqi national guard uniform, but they said yesterday that investigators have not determined his identity. They suggested that the comments of Gen. Babaker Shawkat Zebari, chief of staff of the Iraqi army, were premature in ruling out a national guard member.

The attack in the heart of a large, heavily guarded U.S. base deepened fears that infiltrators in the Iraqi security forces have become a serious threat to U.S. forces. But even as Zebari and other Iraqi officers acknowledged that their screening of recruits is cursory, they expressed confidence in their troops and in the methods they employ to foil infiltrators.

The questions of how the bomber penetrated security at Forward Operating Base Marez and what new safeguards are needed are critical to protecting U.S. forces. They could also prove highly sensitive to the U.S. mission.

To develop capable Iraqi security forces that can take control in Iraq, U.S. troops must be able to train, work closely with and, to a large degree, trust the Iraqi soldiers and police who are mustering at a quickening pace. They must also build relationships with and provide jobs for average Iraqis.

All of that is threatened if, in the name of what the military calls force protection, U.S. troops further close themselves off from the Iraqi people they have come to help.

"The challenge is to balance the level of protection for U.S. forces with their ability to operate," said Rep. Jim Kolbe, an Arizona Republican who was in Baghdad last week to visit troops. "There are always going to be some risks."

Zebari and other Iraqi officers say they minimize the risks by checking on recruits before they are accepted into the armed services.

Along with undergoing medical exams and physical tests, the recruit must provide references from a trusted resident in his home village or neighborhood, Zebari said. Military intelligence must then weed out potential insurgent sympathizers, in part by checking references.

Yet Zebari acknowledged that the race to build a new Iraqi army from scratch has put enormous pressure on the system. In about a year, the Iraqi armed forces -- the Iraqi national guard and the new Iraqi army -- have gone from a few thousand recruits to nine divisions, more than 100,000 troops, Zebari said.

Other Iraqi officers and U.S. officials acknowledge that some units have infiltrators and sympathizers. But the armed forces are not as compromised as the Iraqi police are widely perceived to be. U.S.-led occupation authorities hired many police officers with no background check before turning over partial sovereignty to the Iraqi interim government in June.

Since the Mosul bombing, commanding officers at all bases in Iraq have been ordered to evaluate security. At Camp Fallujah, checks have been tightened on people entering the mess hall, and guards have banned backpacks and similar bags from the dining areas.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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