GWEN IFILL: Now, the attack in Mosul: President Bush had words of sympathy for the families of those killed today. He spoke briefly to reporters after he and Mrs. Bush visited wounded troops at a hospital in Washington.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We send our heartfelt condolences to the loved ones who suffered today. We just want them to know that the mission... it's a vital mission for peace. The idea of a democracy taking hold and what was a place of tyranny and hatred and destruction is such a hopeful moment in the history of the world. And I want to thank the soldiers who are there. I want to thank those who have sacrificed and the families who are worried about them during this Christmas season for their sacrifice.
GWEN IFILL: For more on the Mosul attack, we get a report from Baghdad, from Edmund Sanders of the Los Angeles Times. Ray Suarez talked with him earlier this evening.
RAY SUAREZ: Edmund Sanders, Welcome. Have American officials in Iraq been any better able to determine in the last few hours how this attack was carried out?
EDMUND SANDERS: I think they're still investigating that, but the indications that we have at this point are that it was a rocket attack. Based on certainly the hole in the tent, that might been just some sort of a projectile.
But the terrorist group who is taking responsibility described it as a martyrdom attack and a martyrdom operation. That usually indicates a suicide attack. I've been talking to some people up on the base, and they have said that there is talk of that up there right now. So they're looking at both very closely, I think.
RAY SUAREZ: Tell me more about Ansar al-Suna. Is this a group that had been well-known to the Americans already?
EDMUND SANDERS: They became well-known this year in February, after the suicide attacks in Irbil at a Kurdish celebration where men wearing explosive-laden vests penetrated some celebrations and killed around I think around 66 people.
They've been linked to other attacks: The beheadings of some Nepalese workers earlier this year. They are believed to be an offshoot of Ansar al-Islam, which is a group up in the Kurdish North that was linked to al-Qaida, had links to Zarqawi, and have been taking credit and responsibility for several of the attacks in Iraq this year.
RAY SUAREZ: Over the last year and a half, since the invasion of Iraq, Mosul has often been portrayed as a pretty quiet and orderly place, but has it been that way in the last few weeks?
EDMUND SANDERS: It hasn't certainly in the last few weeks, and it's having its ups and downs throughout the year. But as you said, it's been relatively quiet compared to the rest of the country. All that really changed in November last month after the U.S. invaded Fallujah. According to all reports by U.S. intelligence and also by the Iraqi government, the insurgents and the foreign terrorists that were believed to be operating in Fallujah simply moved to Mosul. There were even some reports that Zarqawi might be in Mosul operating there. And ever since then, the city has been in really a state of chaos.
Police stations have been attacked and ransacked. I think more than 100 bodies have been found-- policemen, security officers, some of them mutilated or beheaded. There was a particularly brutal attack there just a few days ago, in which a carload of Turkish policemen driving through town was ambushed. The men were dragged out of the car and one of them was actually beheaded in the middle of the street, so really a sense of lawlessness up there right now. And that's exactly the word that Prime Minister Allawi this week, just yesterday in fact, during a briefing, described it as a mixture of lawlessness in Mosul.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, this attack took place... this attack was against the American forward- operating base Marez, near Mosul. Is this place where it might be assumed that American soldiers could let down their guard a little bit, maybe take off some of their body armor, put aside their helmets at lunchtime?
EDMUND SANDERS: Well, I haven't been up there in the last few weeks, so I don't know what their practice has been. But in the past, certainly Mosul has been one of those places where soldiers had been more relaxed. And actually, the dining hall, or the chow hall, as they refer to it, is one of the most vulnerable places for soldiers. It's typically made of soft-skin fabric, thick fabric, but not often made of wood or metal because they're so large. They're the size of a football field in many cases.
Soldiers inside almost always wear their... do not wear their flap jackets and their helmets. I don't think I've ever seen that in a year here. They put their guns down; they rest them at their side. It's a place where they relax and let their guard down. So this is really a soft spot. And whether the attackers targeted this or hit it by accident, they really zeroed in on a vulnerability of the military.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, are rockets, mortars often being lobbed in the direction of American forces? Could this be a case where there are actually often attacks like this, but this time they hit their mark?
EDMUND SANDERS: That could be. Rocket attacks and mortar attacks are a daily occurrence here, literally. At most every base experiences them routinely. And the vast majority of the time they land without hurting anyone, without causing very much damage. They're very inaccurate. Rockets, in particular, are hard to aim. So they become routine. If you're on a base, typically you hear something like this happen, you might tense up for a few seconds and then you just go about your business.
People become used to them. If this... this could have been an accident, as one military officer said. You know, even enemy forces get lucky sometimes. If they actually were targeting at this facility, then that's even more worrisome because it suggests that a deadly accuracy that insurgents here have really never shown that they have. So this could suggest a new level of skill if they were actually targeting this facility.
RAY SUAREZ: What's the latest information available on the number of dead and wounded, and what the mix is between American forces and other kind of personnel who might have been on the base?
EDMUND SANDERS: That information is still coming out. We believe that at least 24 people were killed and around 60 were wounded. The latest information that I have is that as many as eighteen or nineteen of those might be U.S. soldiers or Americans. And it's just a little bit unclear at this hour. But it's very possible that this will end up being the deadliest single attack since the U.S. invasion last year, and it is certainly the deadliest attack against a military installation in Iraq.
RAY SUAREZ: Edmund Sanders of the Los Angeles Times joining us from Baghdad. Thanks a lot.
EDMUND SANDERS: Thank you.