A suicide truck driver detonated a tonne of explosives near a police headquarters in Mosul on Friday, killing five US soldiers in the deadliest attack against US troops in more than a year.
The US military said Iraqi police were the bomber’s target and that the Americans were caught up as bystanders.
The horrific blast, believed to have been carried out by Sunni extremists, is likely to increase pressure on Iraq to ask US combat troops to stay in Mosul after the June 30 deadline for them to pull out of Iraqi cities.
The US’ top commander suggested in an interview this week that even as US troops pull out of other cities, he may have to send reinforcements to Mosul, northwest of Baghdad, and to volatile Diyala Province to the northeast.
Of the 31 US troops killed in combat in the Iraq War this year, more than one-third — 11 — have been in Mosul, an angry, impoverished city where efforts to obliterate al-Qaeda and other Sunni militants have failed over the years.
About 2,000 US troops and about 20,000 Iraqi army and police are stationed inside Mosul.
Besides the five Americans, two Iraqi policemen also died in the midmorning blast on Friday near the Iraqi National Police headquarters in the southwest of the city, a US statement said. At least 62 people, including one US soldier and 27 civilians, were wounded, US and Iraqi officials said.
A policeman who identified himself by his nickname, Abu Mohammed, said he saw the truck — its explosives hidden beneath grain — driving behind two US Humvees on the street leading to the police headquarters.
The Humvees entered the compound and stopped. Within seconds, the driver rammed through a metal barrier, slammed into a sandbagged wall near the Humvees and triggered the blast as Iraqi guards sprayed the vehicle with gunfire, he said.
Lieutenant Colonel Michael Stuart, chief of operations for northern Iraq, said the target was the police compound and the patrol just happened to be in the area.
Friday’s blast was the single deadliest attack on US troops in Iraq since March 10 last year, when a suicide bomber struck US soldiers on a foot patrol in Baghdad. Five Americans were killed.
More recently, four US soldiers and their Iraqi interpreter died on Feb. 9 in a suicide bombing at a checkpoint in Mosul.
The dead included a lieutenant colonel, one of only three battalion commanders killed in action in the six-year war.
Despite those losses, US casualties have fallen to their lowest levels of the war since thousands of Sunnis abandoned the insurgency and US and Iraqi forces routed Shiite militias in Baghdad and Basra last spring.
But that success has not been replicated in Mosul, where repeated operations have failed to subdue al-Qaeda and about a dozen other Sunni militant groups. Many insurgents are believed to have fled to northern Iraq after losing their sanctuaries in Baghdad and elsewhere.
The US-Iraqi security agreement that took effect this year requires US combat troops to leave bases in cities by the end of June. US President Barack Obama plans to remove all combat units by September next year and withdraw the rest of the US force by 2012.
But the top US commander, General Raymond Odierno, said this week that he worries Iraqi forces won’t be ready in June to assume full responsibility for Mosul.
Odierno told the Times of London in an interview published on Thursday that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki faces a “very difficult” political decision on whether to ask US troops to stay longer in Mosul.