14 Marines from one unit killed in Iraq

Lightly armored vehicle destroyed by roadside bomb

1 person survives

Among deadliest days of conflict

Bush denounces tactics of insurgents as `brutal'

August 04, 2005|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Fourteen Marines and their Iraqi interpreter were killed yesterday when their troop carrier struck a powerful roadside bomb in the city of Haditha in western Iraq, in one of the deadliest days for U.S. forces since their invasion of the country in March 2003.

The explosion flipped over the Marines' 26-ton assault amphibious vehicle, a lightly armored vehicle designed for taking troops from ship to shore rather than for desert patrols. One Marine was able to crawl from the burning wreckage, wounded but alive, officials said.

The attack brought the number of American casualties in Haditha since Monday to 20. Those killed yesterday were from the same Ohio-based unit, the 3rd Battalion of the 25th Marines, that lost five other members Monday when a group of its snipers was ambushed.

Yesterday's bomb explosion was unusually large, officials said. "We're not yet sure of whether it was a mine or whether it was command-detonated," Army Brig. Gen. Carter Ham, deputy director for regional operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a Pentagon briefing. "We just don't know those details yet.

"I think, very important to always remember that this is a very lethal and, unfortunately, adaptive enemy that we are faced with inside Iraq."

President Bush, speaking in Texas to an audience of state legislators and business people, said the Iraqi insurgents used "brutal tactics" in hopes of forcing an American retreat.

"The violence in recent days in Iraq is a grim reminder of the enemies we face," Bush said.

Forty-four American service members have died in Iraq since July 24 -- all but two in combat. Yesterday's deaths bring to 1,816 the number of U.S. military personnel who have died in Iraq since the 2003 invasion, according to Pentagon figures.

The losses have renewed questions from some Marines, lawmakers and military analysts about the persistence of the two-year-old insurgency, the strategy to pacify the Sunni heartland and whether Marines have the adequate armor protection in their vehicles.

The Marines killed yesterday were part of a major effort to target insurgents who have found shelter in the villages and towns in the Euphrates River valley west of Baghdad. A battalion of U.S. forces, about 800 troops, and a battalion of Iraqi forces are engaged in the western Iraq operation, according to the Pentagon. Those forces are said have killed about 20 suspected insurgents in the past week, officials said.

Ham said the most recent attacks did not necessarily signal a strengthening of the insurgents. "Again, they are dangerous and they certainly have a capability. But as to whether they have an ability to freely operate throughout the area, I think not," he said. "And that's specifically the focus of [the U.S.-led] operations."

He acknowledged that the insurgents' bombs were becoming more lethal. American forces have prided themselves on their improved detection of roadside bombs, but the insurgents seem able to develop new designs of detonators and explosives.

U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces are struggling to contain the insurgency during the approach of an Aug. 15 deadline to draft the country's new constitution. The charter is scheduled for a national referendum Oct. 15, in anticipation of general elections by the end of the year.

"We anticipate that there will be spikes in violence," said Lawrence DiRita, the chief Pentagon spokesman. "But at the same time, the political process will continue. We're confident, the Iraqi leadership is confident, that that progress will continue. And we'll have to deal with these kinds of activities. And the Marines in this particular case are working through that region to get it a little bit more under control."

Critics expressed skepticism about the chances of success. Andrew Krepinevich, a former Army officer and an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, likened the Marines' work to the unsuccessful search-and-destroy missions of the Vietnam War:

"It seems to me not a particularly effective use of our forces."

At the same time, some Pentagon officers blame the Marines' lightly armored vehicle for some of the casualties. The AAV, designed during the Vietnam War and the main troop carrier in Iraq, lacks adequate blast protection, officials said.

"It's not a tank," said one Marine officer at the Pentagon. "It can't withstand an armor-piercing round. It can't withstand [a roadside bomb]."

The Marines -- like the Army -- have spent the past two years placing more armor on their vehicles in Iraq. Last year, the Marines also purchased several dozen South African-designed Cougars, an armored vehicle that offers blast protection, and the Pentagon is planning on buying dozens more. The Marines are also planning to field a more heavily armored, 37-ton vehicle known as the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, though that is not expected to be available for five years.

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