Missile hits civilian plane

twin bombings kill 14 Iraqis

Damaged aircraft lands safely

suicide bombers attack 2 police stations

November 23, 2003|By Mike Dorning and Christine Spolar | Mike Dorning and Christine Spolar,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- A civilian plane was hit by a surface-to-air missile yesterday in Iraq, where suicide bombers struck two police stations, killing at least 14 Iraqis, police and U.S. military officials said.

The cargo plane was hit by a shoulder-fired heat-seeking missile as it left Baghdad International Airport, a military official said, but the aircraft returned safely in an emergency landing. One of the plane's engines was charred, and a piece of one wing was missing, when it landed.

The resumption of civilian air cargo and passenger service is a crucial step in the economic recovery of Iraq and an important symbol for the coalition as it seeks to demonstrate progress. Civilian flights in and out of the airport were immediately suspended, although military missions continued.

The attacks on the plane and the police stations northeast of Baghdad in Khan Bani Saad and Baqouba, which are 12 miles apart, come amid a surge in violence against the U.S.-led coalition and its Iraqi allies.

The two bombings, apparently coordinated, and the missile strike challenge the coalition as the U.S. military is engaged in an 11-day-old campaign to pit America's powerful, precision-guided weapons against the insurgency.

Yesterday's strikes come after an assault Friday on Iraq's Oil Ministry and two well-protected high-rise hotels housing journalists, prominent symbols of the Western presence. The attackers used donkey-drawn carts as platforms to launch rockets. Since Wednesday, bombs have also targeted the home of a pro-U.S. sheik, the offices of a U.S.-allied Kurdish political party and the offices of a British demining group.

Details about the missile strike on the cargo aircraft were sketchy. Coalition officials deflected questions, refusing for much of the day to even confirm that the plane was attacked.

But a military official confirmed that witnesses reported seeing two missiles streaking toward the twin-engine Airbus 300 from the same location at the same time. The flight, operated by Belgium-based DHL, was en route to Bahrain. No one in the crew was injured, a coalition spokesman said.

The official said the military has identified the missiles used as Soviet-era SA-7s, an early heat-seeking missile found in weapons depots throughout Iraq. To reduce the huge stockpiles, the coalition has been offering a $500 bounty for each missile turned in to authorities.

Insurgents have fired repeatedly on aircraft going into and out of Baghdad International Airport. The airport handles mostly military traffic but has been allowing some civilian charter and cargo service.

The strike yesterday marked the first time an airplane has been hit in Iraq.

Five military helicopters, which fly slower than planes and usually at a lower altitude, have been destroyed during operations in recent weeks, killing 39 U.S. soldiers. One was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade fired from the ground during a support operation, and two crashed after colliding, perhaps as one dodged hostile fire. The two others were downed by hostile fire.

The suicide bombings against the police posts came 15 minutes apart while the stations were unusually full for the morning shift change and the streets outside were bustling with rush-hour activity.

In both cases there were signs that the attackers had dressed in the uniforms of high-ranking police officers.

At the Baqouba station, a police guard told investigators that he allowed the attacker to drive through a concertina-wire perimeter outside the station because he was wearing the uniform of a police marshal, the rank of a station commander.

The attacker's Toyota Land Cruiser exploded as a captain walked up to the vehicle to greet the visitor, said Lt. Khalid Yassim.

The explosion left a 15-foot-deep crater. It knocked over a brick wall, sent glass and debris flying through the police station and left a dozen cars twisted and scorched.

"We were thrown into the next room," said Lt. Wamid Talib, 28, who was inside the police station. "My face was bleeding. I heard my colleagues in another room crying out: `Get me out, get me out before I die.'"

Three police officers and the driver were killed in the Baqouba attack, and 43 people were wounded badly enough to require medical treatment, administrators for the local hospital said.

At the Khan Bani Saad station, police guards opened fire on the attacker's sedan because it was speeding toward the property's gate, said Capt. Faisal Kadim. Police found a police marshal's insignia in the debris, he said.

In all, 10 people died in the blast -- six police officers, three civilians and the driver, according to the U.S. military.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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