TALL AFAR, Iraq, April 5 -- A huge bomb exploded near a bus filled with Iraqi soldiers returning from leave Tuesday, killing at least three and wounding at least 44 in an attack that showed how even a payroll issue in Iraq can turn deadly.
The Iraqi soldiers were en route to a U.S. base here from the city of Sinjar, where they had dropped off their monthly pay. Because Iraq's banking system cannot accommodate direct deposits, recruits are given a week's leave each month to carry their money home -- a system that has created chronic security problems and hampered the U.S. military's efforts to develop Iraq's new army.
The bus, carrying nearly 50 soldiers, was surrounded by several trucks mounted with guns to fend off an attack by insurgents. But as the bus neared a checkpoint in the late afternoon on the west side of Tall Afar, a violent city of about 250,000 near the Syrian border, the bomb exploded close to its left side.
"I think [the insurgents] knew that this was our day to come back," said Capt. Ismail Simmo, who said he was riding in one of the gun trucks when the bomb exploded. "We thought we were safe."
For three hours Tuesday night, a tableau at once bleak and inspiring unfolded in the shadows near an aid station at Forward Operating Base Sykes. American soldiers working in teams used stretchers or their own shoulders to move the bloodied Iraqis between the intensive care unit and medevac helicopters that ferried at least 20 of them to a U.S. combat support hospital in Mosul, about 35 miles to the east.
Shortly after the attack on the Iraqis, another roadside bomb exploded in Tall Afar near a convoy of Stryker attack vehicles carrying soldiers from the U.S. Army's 2nd Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment (Stryker Brigade Combat Team). Two soldiers were wounded, an officer from the unit said.
The 2nd Squadron's soldiers have been training hundreds of Iraqi army recruits since September, reflecting the priority U.S. commanders put on development of Iraqi security forces as a step toward withdrawing American troops from Iraq.
Capt. Kevin Beagle, 33, of Sidney, Mont., who serves as liaison officer to an Iraqi battalion, said approximately 20 percent of the Iraqi soldiers rotate home at different times each month because of the pay issue.
Beagle called the system "very problematic" but unavoidable. In addition to the banking problems, there is no reliable method for the soldiers to wire money home, he said. The Iraqi Defense Ministry has yet to devise a system to release money to immediate families. The Iraqi recruits earn about $200 to $500 a month, according to Beagle.
"These guys live paycheck to paycheck, like everybody else does," Beagle said. "They've got families to support back home."
Insurgents have previously targeted Iraqi recruits on leave. In October, insurgents lined up and executed 49 Iraqi National Guard recruits who had left their base in Kirkush for a 20-day leave. In November, 15 to 20 recruits were killed while on leave from training.
U.S. military advisers say they try to stagger the departure times, but the soldiers often travel in conspicuously large convoys. Tuesday's involved about 135 soldiers in eight vehicles, including the bus and some additional cargo trucks that carried equipment.
Beagle said he feared the attack would devastate the battalion. "We were looking really good," he said. "Recruiting was up. Training was up. Operations were up. And I fear that this incident may cause us to take a dive."
But three Iraqi soldiers interviewed outside the aid station where the Iraqis were treated vowed to continue.
"I'll never quit," Lt. Col. Ahmed Hassan, the Iraqi battalion commander, said through an interpreter. "I am here to protect my country."
Lt. Col. Mark Davis, the 2nd Squadron's commander, said at least three Iraqi soldiers had been killed and 44 wounded. Brad Younggren, the squadron surgeon, said six or seven seriously wounded soldiers arrived in the first group of casualties brought to the aid station, followed by 45 more.