An explosion ripped through a tent at a military base near the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, killing at least 24 people and wounding more than 60 others At least 19 American military personnel are among the dead. The attack came as British Prime Minister Tony Blair made a surprise visit to Baghdad.
Hundreds of U.S. soldiers had just sat down to lunch at the base when a huge explosion sent shrapnel through the dining hall.
A reporter on the scene says troops were knocked off their feet and out of their seats as a fireball enveloped the large tent covering the area where soldiers eat their meals.
The commander of U.S. forces in Mosul, Brigadier General Carter Ham, says a single large explosion rocked the dining facility. He says the cause of the explosion is being investigated.
The general says casualties include U.S. soldiers, American and foreign civilian contractors and members of the Iraqi Army: "It is indeed a very, very sad day. But I would also say, in their typical, magnificent manner, U.S. soldiers today responded to that attack just as we would expect them to, with bravery, with unselfish caring for one another."
In a statement on the internet, the al-Qaida-linked Army of Ansar al-Sunna claimed responsibility for the attack, calling it a "martyrdom operation."
The same group took responsibility for beheading 12 Nepalese hostages in August.
President Bush, speaking to reporters after meeting with wounded U.S. soldiers at Walter Reed Army hospital in Washington, sent his condolences to the families of the victims: "This time of year is particularly sorrowful for the families as we head into the Christmas season. We pray for them. We send our heartfelt condolences to the loved ones who suffered today. We just want them to know that the mission is a vital mission for peace. The idea of a democracy taking hold in what was a place of tyranny and hatred and destruction is such a hopeful moment in the history of the world."
The violence came on the same day British Prime Minister Tony Blair paid a surprise visit to Iraq. The British leader met with Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and officials preparing for next month's elections.
Three employees of the Iraqi Electoral Commission were gunned down Sunday in Baghdad.
Mr. Blair says he told the election workers they are heroes: "I said to them that I thought they were the heroes of the new Iraq that is being created, because here are people who are risking their lives every day to make sure that the people of Iraq get a chance to decide their own destiny."
Mr. Blair says the pre-election violence is the work of terrorists who are trying to keep Iraq from becoming a democratic country.
Meanwhile, Iraqi insurgents have released two French journalists (Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot) who were taken hostage last August.
A group calling itself the Islamic Army of Iraq originally threatened to kill the two unless France lifted a ban on Islamic headscarves in public schools.