“At this point, it looks like it was an improvised explosive device worn by an attacker,” General Myers told reporters at the Pentagon, suggesting an insurgent had infiltrated the US base before detonating the bomb.

The attack on a US Army canteen in Mosul, northern Iraq, has been reported to have killed 22 people, of which, according to Gen. Myers, 13 were American soldiers.

Others were US civilians and members of the Iraqi security forces, and 72 people were wounded.

The huge explosion ripped through the base’s dining hall when staff were seated for lunch.

The military was in the process of replacing the canvas mess hall with a more secure facility at the time of the attack.

Bill Nemitz, an embedded US newspaper reporter, said soldiers previously had expressed concerns about the “soft-skinned” dining facility which resembled a canvas-covered aircraft hanger.

The attack has led to more criticism being leveled at Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, specifically how security could have been breached and troops left vulnerable.

He said he was “truly saddened” anyone could think he was not laboring to protect US combat troops.

An uncharacteristically subdued Mr Rumsfeld addressed his critics with an unprompted statement at the start of a Pentagon briefing, and said he stayed awake a night worrying about America’s fighting men and women.

A curfew has been imposed in Mosul as US troops track insurgents throughout the town.

Mosul’s governor Duraid Kashmula announced the closure of all bridges across the Tigris River, which divides the city from east to west.

Anyone who tried to use them was “putting his life in danger”, he warned.

ABC News, quoting unidentified sources, reported that “a backpack found by investigators at the site and remnants of a torso indicate the attack was caused by a suicide bombing”.

Al-Qaeda linked militants who claimed responsibility for Tuesday’s attack in Mosul said it was a suicide bombing against “American crusaders”.

US President George W Bush mourned the victims but said they died serving a “vital mission for peace” to build a democracy in the violence-plagued country, and vowed that the attack would not derail that goal.

The four civilians killed were from the Halliburton subsidiary KBR, company spokeswoman Wendy Hall said. Sixteen Halliburton employees, 12 of them subcontractors, were seriously wounded in the attack, she said.

Meanwhile, US construction firm Contrack International has announced it is pulling out of a US$325m contract to rebuild Iraq’s transport infrastructure, citing security fears. A spokesperson for the Washington-based company said it was “just too dangerous to continue”.

Mosul has been under a night-time curfew since November 11 when insurgents rose up in revolt against the coalition, giving credence to warnings the city had become a base for the country’s most-wanted militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

In October, Iraqi intelligence chief Mohammed Abdullah al-Shahwani said Mosul had become a major base for militants linked to the Jordanian-linked fugitive Zarqawi, who has a 25-million-dollar price on his head.

The third-largest city in Iraq was once considered a success story of the US presence in the country, but has been transformed into a battleground between insurgents and US forces.

US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has warned that it would be “a mistake” to think that deadly chaos in Iraq will subside after elections scheduled for January 30.

“I think looking for a peaceful Iraq after the elections would be a mistake. I think our expectations level ought to be realistic about that,” Mr Rumsfeld told reporters at the Pentagon.

“These folks have a lot to lose: The extremists and terrorists and the people who are determined to try to take back that country are determined not to lose,” he said.

Speaking at the same briefing, the chairman of US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers agreed that violence in Iraq would not end after the elections, but said they would be an important political milestone.

“I’m not saying there’s not going to be a lot of challenges after January 30. That will not be a panacea either, but it will be a very important step in legitimising the Iraqi government, de-legitimising the insurgents,” said Gen. Myers.

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