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By Wire services
Suicide bombing is deadliest attack against U.S. ally since occupation began.
NASIRIYAH, Iraq - A suicide bomber blew up a truck packed with explosives at an Italian paramilitary base Wednesday, killing at least 26 people. The United States struck at the Iraqi insurgency hours later, destroying a warehouse in Baghdad and chasing attackers who were seen firing mortars.
The recent string of high-profile attacks on U.S. and allied forces in Iraq has appeared to be so methodical and well-crafted that some top U.S. commanders now fear that this may be the war Saddam Hussein and his generals planned all along.
Knowing from the 1991 Persian Gulf War that they couldn't take on the U.S. military with conventional forces, the Baathist government cached weapons before the Americans invaded and planned to employ guerrilla tactics, these officers believe.
"I believe Saddam Hussein always intended to fight an insurgency should Iraq fall," said Maj. Gen. Charles Swannack, commanding general of the 82nd Airborne Division and the man responsible for combat operations in the lower "Sunni Triangle," the most unstable part of Iraq. "That's why you see so many of these arms caches out there in significant numbers all over the country. They were planning to go ahead and fight an insurgency, should Iraq fall."
The Nasiriyah attack was the insurgency's deadliest against an American ally since the occupation began and appeared to send a message that international groups are not safe anywhere in Iraq.
Col. Gianfranco Scalas said 18 Italians were killed: 12 Carabinieri paramilitary police, four soldiers, a civilian working at the base and a documentary filmmaker. A spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition said at least eight Iraqis also died. The bomber, whose nationality was not known, also died.
The blast wounded 79 people, 20 of them Italians, hospital sources and Italian officials said.
Italians were stunned by their nation's single worst military loss since World War II and its first in the Iraq campaign.
Jalal Talabani, the head of the Iraqi Governing Council, called the slain Italians "martyrs of the fight for the freedom of Iraq."
There were conflicting accounts of the attack, which took place about 10:40 a.m. at a three-story building used by the Carabinieri's multinational specialist unit in Nasiriyah, 180 miles southeast of Baghdad.
Witnesses said the decoy car ran a roadblock in front of a square where the Italian barracks was located. Guards opened fire, but as the vehicle sped away, the fuel tanker approached from the opposite direction and rammed into the gate of the building before exploding.
Italian Defense Minister Antonio Martino said the truck, followed by an armored car, approached the compound at high speed. Gunmen inside one of the vehicles opened fire at Italian troops guarding the entrance, he said. The guards returned fire, but the vehicle plowed through the gate, and then exploded, he added.
It was the 13th vehicle bombing in Iraq since Aug. 7, when a car exploded at the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad, killing at least 19 people. Wednesday's blast from the estimated 650 pounds of explosives collapsed all three stories of the building, gouged a 6-foot-deep crater, and set fire to parked cars. Secondary explosions from stored ammunition shook the area.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the Bush administration expressed its condolences to Italy for "standing with the United States and the rest of the coalition in the war against terrorism."
Italy has sent about 2,300 troops to help rebuild Iraq. About 340 Carabinieri are based in Nasiriyah, along with 110 Romanians. No Romanians were reported wounded in Wednesday's attack.
Carabinieri are paramilitary police under the Defense Ministry and have served in Afghanistan and the Balkans.
Portugal said it was changing plans to deploy 128 elite police officers to Iraq because of the attack. The contingent will go to Basra instead of Nasiriyah.
After nightfall in Baghdad, forces from the 1st Armored Division attacked a warehouse used by insurgents, setting off explosions that reverberated through the capital.
"The facility is a known meeting, planning, storage and rendezvous point for belligerent elements currently conducting attacks on coalition forces and infrastructure," the Pentagon said.
The mission was part of Operation Iron Hammer, a new "get tough" policy for confronting insurgents.
In an interview Wednesday at his headquarters northwest of the capital, Swannack of the 82nd Airborne said the swiftness of the fall of Baghdad in April probably caught Hussein and his followers by surprise and prevented them from launching their planned insurgency for a few months. That would explain why anti-U.S. violence dropped off noticeably in July and early August, but then began to rise.
Not everyone in Iraq agrees with that theory. An alternative view is that the current resistance was not planned in advance - rather, Hussein loyalists were in disarray after last spring's war and took several months to develop a response.
Swannack said there is no evidence that Hussein himself is orchestrating the attacks. "He has to move so much that he can't do the day-to-day operational planning or direction and resourcing of the effort," he said.
A CIA report from Iraq received over the weekend said agency officers in the field believe that most of the insurgents are "former regime types" who were disorganized by the speed of the U.S. invasion but are now regrouping.
The CIA report also warned that if coalition forces cannot get the situation under control, Iraqi citizens may stop cooperating against the insurgents.
- Information from the Associated Press and Washington Post was used in this report.
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