June 11, 2005 in Nation/World

Blast suspicious in deaths of two officers

Patrick J. McDonnell Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq – U.S. authorities have launched a criminal investigation into the deaths of two Army officers who were initially reported killed by a mortar strike at an American base near the town of Tikrit, the military announced Friday.

The Army’s Criminal Investigation Division is examining the deaths Wednesday of Capt. Phillip T. Esposito and 1st Lt. Louis E. Allen after explosive ordnance experts determined their deaths were “inconsistent with a mortar attack,” according to a military statement.

Authorities in Iraq and at the Pentagon offered no further details, and it was unclear who might have been involved in the deaths.

The two men were killed in a ground-floor room at a lavish former palace of Saddam Hussein on sprawling grounds that has been converted into a military base. They belonged to the 42nd Infantry Division of the New York Army National Guard. Esposito was the commander of the division’s Headquarters & Headquarters Co., while Allen served as a company operations officer.

The military’s initial investigation “indicated that a mortar round struck the window on the side of the building where Esposito and Allen were located,” according to a statement. Other soldiers living at the palace on the Tigris River heard a series of four explosions about 10 p.m. Tuesday, according to the Chicago Tribune.

“The evidence is that this was not a combat attack or incident,” Col. Bill Buckner, spokesman for the Multi-National Corps in Iraq, told the newspaper Friday. “The evidence indicates that this was not indeed caused by a mortar attack.”

The Tribune reported that soldiers carried hundreds of sandbags inside to fortify their rooms inside the converted palace after the attack.

Allen, 34, of Milford, Pa., had just been deployed in April and arrived in Tikrit a few days ago, according to the Times Herald Record of Middletown, N.Y. He had worked as a science teacher in upstate New York and is survived by his wife and four children, ages 6, 5, 3 and 1.

Esposito, 30, a 1997 graduate of West Point, had worked for the Smith Barney unit of Citicorp Inc. in New York City and was sent to Iraq in January, according to the Journal News of White Plains, N.Y. He had lived with his wife and 18-month-old daughter in Pearl River, N.Y., about 30 miles northwest of Manhattan.

It was unclear from the information provided so far what kind of ordnance – grenades or some other kind of explosive – was used in the attack, and whether it originated from inside or outside the base. U.S. officials in Iraq were not providing additional details early today.

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