By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
BAGHDAD, May 11 -- An American soldier opened fire on comrades Monday afternoon inside a combat stress clinic at a large U.S. military base in Baghdad, killing five and wounding three in an attack that prompted officials to promise to try to ease the strain on troops deployed to war zones.
The gunman was taken into custody shortly after the 2 p.m. shooting at Camp Liberty, part of a sprawling military installation near Baghdad International Airport, U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Brian Tribus said.
The military did not identify the gunman or shed light on what his motive might have been. Tribus said the gunman's name will be disclosed when and if charges are filed.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and President Obama vowed to conduct a thorough investigation.
"I would like to express my horror and deep regret for today's shooting incident," Gates said at a briefing at the Pentagon. "Such a tragic loss of life at the hands of our own forces is a cause for great and urgent concern."
Gates said the Pentagon needs to redouble its efforts to relieve the stress caused by repeated deployments in war zones with limited time at home in between.
The shooting, among the deadliest attacks on American troops in Iraq in recent months, comes as U.S. commanders are grappling with the rising rate at which service members are committing suicide. Military leaders have attributed the increase to the stress of multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Monday's attack was the deadliest incident involving a soldier opening fire on comrades since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The rampage shook up soldiers at Victory Base Compound, which includes Camp Liberty, in large part because most feel relatively safe at the heavily guarded base.
"A lot of soldiers are wondering why," said a senior military official in Baghdad, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "We will be asking as leaders: What could we have done? How could we have protected the soldiers?"
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said that Obama was "saddened" and "shocked" by the shootings and that the president's "heart goes out" to the families of those killed.
Obama will press Gates in a meeting Monday afternoon to investigate the shootings to "ensure we fully understand what happened," Gibbs said.
Most military facilities in Iraq have combat stress clinics. Small outposts have officers trained to counsel soldiers experiencing depression, anxiety and other symptoms of combat stress. The military in recent years has launched campaigns to ease the stigma often associated with counseling.
Soldiers may walk into the clinics without making an appointment and are sometimes escorted by a friend or supervisor.
Soldiers are generally required to carry their weapons on military bases, which in the past have been targeted by extremists. They are supposed to make sure the weapons are not loaded when they enter buildings such as dining facilities, stores and office buildings.
At least 140 soldiers committed suicide in 2008, according to the Army, a considerable increase compared with the 115 cases reported the previous year and the 102 documented in 2006. The number is the highest since the military started tracking suicide data in 1980. The Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force also reported an uptick in suicides last year.
The number of soldiers who committed suicide during the first few months of this year is on pace to surpass last year's figure.
The Army's vice chief of staff, Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, told lawmakers in April that at least 48 soldiers had committed suicide this year. "These current figures are unacceptable," he said.
Also on Monday, the military said an American soldier was killed by a roadside bomb in southern Iraq. The attack occurred at 2 p.m. Sunday in Basra province. U.S. soldiers recently deployed additional troops to the province to replace British soldiers, who formally ended their mission there last month.
Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson and staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.