MOSUL, Iraq -- US Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld visited wounded soldiers and brought holiday greetings on Christmas Eve amid tight security at a military base in northern Iraq where an insurgent's attack killed 14 US troops and eight other people earlier this week.
Hoping to demonstrate compassion for the troops' sacrifices, Rumsfeld landed in darkness and walked immediately from his plane to a combat surgical hospital where many of the bombing victims were treated after Tuesday's lunchtime attack on a mess tent. The most seriously wounded already have been transferred to a US military hospital in Germany.
Out of concern for security, Rumsfeld's aides went to unusual lengths to keep his visit a secret prior to his arrival, with only a few reporters and one television crew accompanying him on an overnight flight from Washington.
In an interview aboard the C-17 cargo plane that brought him to Mosul, Rumsfeld said he had been planning to visit US troops here long before Tuesday's deadly attack, believed to have been carried out by a suicide bomber.
"The focus of the trip is to thank the troops and wish them a Merry Christmas," he said.
The blast Tuesday at Forward Operating Base Marez was the deadliest single attack on a US base in Iraq, striking as hundreds of soldiers sat down to lunch. Fourteen US service members, four American civilians, three Iraqi National Guard members, and one "unidentified non-US person" were killed.
The top US general in northern Iraq said yesterday that the suicide bomber believed to have blown himself up in the dining tent was probably wearing an Iraqi military uniform. The episode has focused new attention on the ability of the US military to protect its forces.
Brigadier General Carter F. Ham -- commander of Task Force Olympia, the main US force in northern Iraq -- said in an interview with CNN that the bomber may have gotten through the vetting process conducted by US and Iraqi authorities to check the backgrounds of Iraqis joining the security services.
Lieutenant Colonel Paul Hastings, spokesman for Task Force Olympia in Mosul, said a general officer will be flying in from headquarters in Baghdad to take over the investigation into how the devastating attack on the base near Mosul was carried out. The FBI is also participating in the probe. "He'll initiate an investigation, . . . then we will be in a better position to find out what happened," Hastings said in a telephone interview.
Rumsfeld's stealth trip came on the heels of several difficult weeks for the defense chief. Several high-profile Republicans have publicly criticized Rumsfeld, prompting President Bush to defend him on Monday as a "good human being who cares deeply about the military and deeply about the grief that war causes."