BAGHDAD, Iraq – Fourteen U.S. Marines were killed Wednesday when a huge bomb destroyed their lightly armored vehicle, hurling it into the air in a giant fireball in the deadliest roadside bombing suffered by American forces in the Iraq war.
A civilian translator also was killed and one Marine was wounded. The victims were from the same Ohio-based Reserve unit as five of six members of a Marine sniper team killed on Monday in an ambush claimed by the Islamic extremist Ansar al-Sunnah Army.
The deaths brought to 23 the number of Marines killed in the past week in fighting along the volatile Euphrates Valley of western Iraq and marked one of the bloodiest periods for U.S. forces in months. In all, 44 American service members have died in Iraq since July 24 — all but two in combat.
The heavy loss of life cast new attention on a longtime Marine complaint — the lack of protection provided by their armored amphibious vehicles, or AAVs. The vehicles are designed to be dropped from ships for coastal assaults. Although fast and maneuverable, the vehicles have armor plating that is lighter than those used by the Army — a critical issue in a war where the roadside bomb is the most common threat.
A Marine officer, speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons, said the attack occurred as troops were traveling in an armored amphibious vehicle to assault insurgent positions around a village near the Haditha dam, a longtime way station for foreign fighters infiltrating Iraq from Syria.
Suddenly, a thunderous explosion rang out and the vehicle flipped over in a fireball, he said. The surviving Marine scrambled from beneath the overturned vehicle, the officer said.
The Marines killed Wednesday were assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines based in Brook Park, a Cleveland suburb, and attached to the Regimental Combat Team-2. Nine of them were from a single smaller unit in Columbus.
President Bush lamented the deaths of the 14 Marines, calling the attack a "grim reminder" America is still at war.
"These terrorists and insurgents will use brutal tactics because they”re trying to shake the will of the United States of America. They want us to retreat," Bush told some 2,000 lawmakers, business leaders and public policy experts in Grapevine, Texas.
Moreover, American commanders have warned that while insurgent bombings have been declining in number, they have been increasing in power and sophistication. Villagers reached by telephone said the blast blew the vehicle into pieces, and a large crater could be seen nearby.
"This is a very lethal and unfortunately very adaptable enemy we are faced with," said U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Carter Ham, a Pentagon staff officer and former commander of U.S. forces in Mosul.
Marines have been fighting for months in a string of towns along the Euphrates to try to seal a major infiltration route for foreign fighters slipping into Iraq from Syria. Late Wednesday, insurgents fired two mortars at Marine positions near Haditha. Moments later, U.S. warplanes could be heard mounting counterattacks, residents said.
The Marines stepped up operations in May in hopes of pacifying the area so Iraqi military and civilian forces could assume effective control. However, government authority in the heavily Sunni Arab region is tenuous.
U.S. officials have long complained that American forces seize Sunni areas only to have Iraqi authorities lose them again to the insurgents once American troops leave. Despite those complaints, the Bush administration is talking about handing more security responsibility to the Iraqis and drawing down forces next year.
At least 1,821 members of the U.S. military have died since the Iraq war began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
On Wednesday, the Web site of the Ansar al-Sunnah Army posted photographs from Monday”s attack on the Marine sniper team. One picture shows a bloody, battered body wearing Marine camouflage trousers. Another shows two hooded gunmen standing in front of several rifles, apparently taken from dead Marines.
In a statement accompanying the photos, Ansar al-Sunnah said the insurgents lured the Marines out of their base and ambushed them.
"The intention was to capture them alive, but they opened fire on the mujahedeen," the statement said. "The heroes slaughtered those who were still alive … except for one, who begged the mujahedeen for his life. They captured him and he is in our hands."
At the Pentagon, Ham said no Marines were missing and believed captured.
In Brook Park, the Cleveland suburb where the battalion was based, businesses tied red, white and blue ribbons on their doors, and some had American flags hanging in the windows. A bouquet of red roses was placed at the gate of the Marine headquarters, an old brick schoolhouse.
Among the six killed Monday was Cpl. Jeffrey A. Boskovitch, 25, of North Royalton, Ohio, an aspiring police officer who planned to set a wedding date with his girlfriend when he returned home this fall.
A New York City police officer serving in the Army Reserve was shot and killed Tuesday by a sniper while guarding prisoners at the Camp Victory military base, outside Baghdad, city officials said Wednesday. Staff Sgt. James McNaughton, 27, was the first member of the police force to be killed in action in Iraq.
In Basra, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad, an American freelance writer was found dead late Tuesday — the first U.S. journalist slain in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion. Steven Vincent of New York was shot multiple times hours after he and his Iraqi translator were abducted at gunpoint, police said.
The translator, Nour Weidi, was seriously wounded. Five gunmen in a police car abducted them as they left a currency exchange shop Tuesday evening, police Lt. Col. Karim al-Zaidi said.
Vincent had been in Basra for several months working on a book about the city”s history. In an opinion column published July 31 in The New York Times, he wrote that Basra”s police force had been heavily infiltrated by members of Shiite political groups, including those loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
He quoted an unidentified Iraqi police lieutenant as saying that some police were behind many of the assassinations of former Baath Party members that have taken place in Basra. He also criticized British forces for failing to curb the infiltration.
According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 46 journalists and 20 media support workers have been killed covering the war in Iraq since March 2003. Insurgent actions are responsible for the bulk of the deaths.
The Vienna, Austria-based media watchdog International Press Institute condemned Vincent”s killing and urged Iraqi authorities to conduct a speedy and thorough investigation.
The death underscored how "Iraq continues to be the most dangerous country in the world in which to work as a journalist," the group said.