Only a week ago, Christmas trees and other holiday decorations began to go up in the cavernous mess hall at Forward Operating Base Marez near Mosul, Iraq. The soft-skinned tent is one of the few spots on the base where troops can relax with friends, eat a cheeseburger or catch "Monday Night Football" over Tuesday morning breakfast.
A new, concrete-and-steel structure that might have withstood Tuesday's blast -- or limited the casualties -- is under construction a few yards away down a hillside.
On Tuesday, the chow hall that offered a rare break from the tensions of war became a killing ground. A lunchtime explosion in the crowded facility left dozens dead and wounded.
Soldiers at the base had long complained of feeling defenseless in the fabric-covered hall, which lately has been the target of mortar and rocket attacks almost daily.
"My husband told me that the dining hall has been a target many times," said Tammy Richardson, 41, of Canton, Maine. Her husband, Eric, 40, is a staff sergeant with the Maine National Guard's 133rd Engineer Battalion. Two soldiers from the 133rd died in the attack.
"He says no one spends any more time in the tent than he has to," Richardson said. She got an e-mail from her husband Tuesday saying he was safe.
The new dining hall was supposed to be ready by Christmas but is running behind schedule. Hastings said the reinforced mess building would have made a significant difference if it had been ready before Tuesday's attack.
The soft-skinned hall that was attacked Tuesday was a huge white tent about 30 feet high at its peak, built on a concrete slab. It was the only dining hall on base and was open for the three traditional meals, as well as for midnight leftovers for troops on late shifts.
The new, hardened structure is being built by KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton. It was to be finished by Saturday but "is nowhere near done," Hastings said. "There have been a number of issues, primarily getting the work force here, weather and getting building materials."
Halliburton, an oil- and gas-services conglomerate once run by Vice President Dick Cheney, would not comment on delays in construction of the hardened dining hall. It declined to answer other questions about its work on the Mosul base.
In an e-mail, Halliburton spokeswoman Wendy Hall said: "It is extremely difficult to prevent these appalling and horrific attacks. We know that safety and security is the top priority for the military."
Halliburton has had contracts worth more than $8 billion in Iraq, mainly to build and maintain U.S. military bases and supply troops with food and fuel, but also to help rebuild Iraq's oil infrastructure.
The Houston-based company has faced intense criticism from Congress and Pentagon auditors, who have withheld payments because of alleged overcharging. Halliburton employees have been accused of taking kickbacks in Kuwait, and the company has fired workers it said were involved.
Phil Morrell, a Salt Lake City contractor who has done subcontracting work for KBR in Iraq, said his company had worked on the fabric-covered dining hall at Camp Marez but now builds only hardened facilities on bases elsewhere in Iraq.
Morrell said he bid to build a hard replacement for the mess tent but was beaten out by KBR. He said KBR rejected his design for hardened buildings sheathed in a blast-resistant material. The two companies have had billing disputes about charges for troop meals.
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