A Marine Reserve company that was known as "Lucky Lima" before suffering heavy casualties in May was hit Wednesday by the deadliest roadside bombing of the Iraq war, a massive explosion that killed 14 Marines and the unit's Iraqi interpreter, according to witnesses and military spokesmen.
The Marines were part of a convoy that was attacked on a desert road outside the western town of Haditha, one witness said. Rolling in armored vehicle after armored vehicle, the patrol was nearing the entrance to the town when a brilliant flash erupted in the middle of the convoy.
"Huge fire and dust rose from the place of the explosion," said Saad Mijbil, a motorist who said he witnessed the bombing and was later hospitalized with bullet wounds sustained in the chaotic aftermath.
The bomb blew apart the personnel carrier, known as an Amtrac, and ignited its load of fuel and explosives. Though he was 80 yards away, Mijbil said, the blast was strong enough to have broken the rear window of his pickup truck.
The U.S. military gave few details of the attack.
Nine of the dead Marines were members of Lima Company -- part of the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, a reserve unit from Ohio that had been sent to the Syrian border to play a lead role in shutting off the main route for foreign gunmen and suicide bombers entering Iraq.
"They used to call it Lucky Lima," the company's commander, Maj. Steve Lawson, said in May after an urban ambush and a roadside bomb on successive days killed or wounded every member of one of Lima Company's three squads. "That turned around and bit us."
As it turned out, Lima Company and the rest of the 25th Regiment were beginning four months in which they would be bombed and ambushed in the grimy Euphrates River towns where U.S. commanders say foreign insurgents had moved freely. During the tour, 16 members of Lima Company have been killed, according to a military spokesman in Columbus, Ohio, 1st Sgt. James Halbig.
As a whole, the 25th Regiment suffered 20 dead in May and June. Then, with Wednesday's bombing and two attacks Monday, the number of dead more than doubled, to 41.
Gunmen killed at least five members of the regiment on a foot patrol Monday outside Haditha, the U.S. military said, and the body of a sixth Marine was found a mile or two from the firefight. The same day, a suicide bomber killed a Marine in the town of Hit, about 45 miles from Haditha, the military said.
The Ansar al-Sunna Army asserted responsibility for the killing of the six Marines on Monday and suggested in an Internet statement that it had killed some with knives. Al Qaeda in Iraq, an insurgent group led by Jordanian-born Abu Musab Zarqawi, asserted responsibility for Monday's suicide bombing.
In Columbus and nearby cities and towns, Marine officers in dress blues went from house to house Wednesday, notifying relatives of casualties.
"Let me ask you, is the 3rd Battalion of the 25th Marines fighting the entire war?" demanded Ken Hiltz, a police officer in Ohio and former Marine who has friends in Lima Company. "This battalion is decimated. I'm just losing count."
President Bush, speaking to lawmakers, business leaders and others during his vacation in Texas, called news of the deaths Wednesday a "grim reminder" that the United States is still at war.
"These terrorists and insurgents will use brutal tactics because they're trying to shake the will of the United States of America," Bush said. "They want us to retreat."
Haditha has been the scene of repeated attacks on the 3/25. Four Marines were killed in a firefight this spring at the town's hospital, where insurgents fired from behind patients, Marines said.
Hit, Haditha and a string of other towns along the Euphrates are populated almost entirely by farmers and merchants of Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority. The vast majority of Iraqi insurgents are Sunnis, and they have been joined by radical Sunnis from other countries who enter Iraq from Syria to attack U.S. and Iraqi security forces and members of Iraq's newly dominant Shiite majority.
Their tactics include suicide attacks, which military spokesmen say are mostly carried out by foreign extremists, and roadside bombings conducted by well-trained cells of insurgents who make and plant the devices. By far the most prevalent and lethal tool of the insurgents, roadside bombs almost always employ artillery or mortar shells rigged with fuses and detonators.
With experience, insurgents have figured out increasingly lethal ways to rig bombs, U.S. military officials say. Frequent patrols -- which reduce the time insurgents have to plant bombs -- have been one of the Marines' main methods for keeping bombers from making entire regions impassable, but also put Marines at risk of hitting bombs themselves.
Residents of the towns along the Euphrates typically tell Marines that the only insurgents in their area are foreign fighters. Contacted by telephone in Haditha on Wednesday, however, some residents celebrated the bombing -- which apparently inflicted no civilian casualties -- even as they braced for retaliation.
"Me, I'm very happy with this operation, and it's the same for the people here," said Nour Ahmed, 35, an employee of a government-run industry. "But at the same time, we're afraid of the Marine reaction in the coming hours."
"We've never had such a resistance operation outside town that cost the Americans a lot without hurting many civilians," said Mohammed Hamed Hadeethi, a professor at the region's Anbar University. "That's what gives this operation a whole different color than other operations. We call it the white operation."
Mijbil, the motorist who spoke by cell phone from his hospital bed, said he was injured when survivors in the U.S. convoy searched the neighborhood. Mijbil said he ducked under the steering wheel of his pickup, fearing that the Americans would mistake him for a bomber. A Marine sprinting past his truck apparently did just that, Mijbil said, and shot him six times through the door.
It was impossible to independently confirm his account Wednesday.
Staff writer Peter Slevin in Chicago contributed to this report.