BAGHDAD, Iraq – Nine Marines were killed and nine others were wounded in a car-bomb ambush near the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah on Saturday, in the deadliest single attack on U.S. forces in nearly nine months. Another car bombing killed at least seven Iraqis outside the Baghdad offices of an Arabic news network.
In a third incident, Iraqi security forces reportedly killed 14 people when they opened fire on vehicles carrying civilians in the aftermath of a roadside bomb attack on a U.S. Army convoy roughly 25 miles south of Baghdad, the capital.
The attack on the Marines underscored the growing use of car bombs as the weapon of choice in attacking military convoys. Vehicles such as taxis and even motorcycles can be packed with far more explosives than artillery shells or land mines, which commonly are used as roadside bombs, and can inflict greater casualties.
Saturday’s mayhem came as U.S. forces readied themselves for an all-out assault on Fallujah and clashed with militants on the city’s outskirts during scouting missions. U.S. military officials say the city has long provided refuge to insurgents, as well as Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The city west of Baghdad, they say, must be retaken if Iraqi national elections are to be held as scheduled in January.
Over the last month in Fallujah, aerial bombings and raids by the Marines and Iraqi soldiers have destroyed numerous homes and structures suspected of hiding members of al-Zarqawi’s network.
News of the Marines’ deaths came in the form of a news release, issued by the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force based at Camp Pendleton in California, which has formed a partial cordon around Fallujah. Unlike the U.S. Army, which describes the circumstances of soldiers’ deaths, the Marines do not provide such information for fear it will endanger their security.
But a military source who requested anonymity said the deaths occurred when a suicide car bomber rammed a Marine convoy just southwest of Fallujah. Insurgents then fired on the convoy, which was towing a disabled vehicle. Another source said the attack was near Abu Ghraib, slightly to the east.
The death toll was the worst in a single incident since Jan. 8, when nine U.S. soldiers were killed as an American Black Hawk helicopter crashed west of Fallujah.
In the Baghdad attack, 19 people were injured in addition to the seven killed as the car bomb exploded in a parking lot near the offices of Al Arabiya television, a Dubai-based satellite television network that has drawn the ire of insurgents, as well as the Iraqi and U.S. governments.
Not all of the dead could be identified immediately, according to Al Arabiya staffers, but it appeared that the bombing injured seven network employees, mostly technicians and drivers. The dead and remaining injured appeared to be passers-by.
The explosion rocked Baghdad’s upscale Mansour district, blasting a hole in the front of the office and spraying shards of glass throughout the building. Outside, the blast left an enormous crater and littered the street with mangled bodies and flaming vehicles.
“It was awful – a very strong explosion,” said reporter Faris Mahdawi, who was stuck in the head with debris. “I escaped from the window. Most of my friends were injured. We were about to suffocate because of the smoke and the fire.”
In an Internet posting hours after the attack, a group calling itself the 1920 Brigades took responsibility for the blast, calling the network “the mouthpiece of the American occupation in Iraq.” Al Arabiya has faced criticism from groups across the political spectrum. Even as some fundamentalist Muslims have accused the network of sympathizing with the United States and Israel, U.S. officials have criticized Al Arabiya for its coverage, saying that it was needlessly inflammatory.
In March, two journalists for the network were killed at a U.S. military checkpoint. Cameraman Ali Abdel Aziz and correspondent Ali al Khatib were shot when they hurriedly drove away from the checkpoint, fearing that a vehicle speeding toward them was a car bomb.
Fear of rolling car bombs also might be at the root of a deadly incident south of Baghdad on Saturday in which Iraqi National Guardsmen and police officers reportedly opened fire on civilians in buses and minivans.
Neither Iraqi government officials nor U.S. military spokesmen could confirm the incident.
The death of the nine Marines on Saturday throws into sharp relief a predicament for U.S. military personnel in Iraq: Moving in convoys is always dangerous and sometimes deadly. In fact, every time military vehicles move in Iraq, it’s considered a combat mission.
To decrease the number of military vehicles on Iraqi roads – roads that they share with Iraqi civilian traffic – Marines have begun doing resupply missions by helicopter, and in some cases have dropped supplies by parachute to troops in far-flung locations. It was unknown if the convoy attacked Saturday was on a resupply mission.
The use of “suicide cars” has increased the risk for Marines driving on Iraqi roads. Such cars often are rigged to explode when the front bumper hits another vehicle.