Car bomb kills at least 27

Explosion unleashes chaos in quiet area

At least 45 are wounded

`violence directed at Iraqi citizens,' says U.S. official

Iraq Conflict: Baghdad Hotel Attack

March 18, 2004|By Aamer Madhani and Mike Dorning | Aamer Madhani and Mike Dorning,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - A powerful explosion tore through a five-story hotel and several Iraqi homes in the heart of Baghdad last night, killing at least 27 people and wounding at least 45 others just days before the anniversary of the start of the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

Military and medical officials said the hotel guest list included business people from Britain, India and several Arab countries. A hospital administrator said one of the dead was a Westerner of undetermined nationality who carried employee identification from a security consulting company.

The suspected car bomb was detonated shortly after 8 p.m. and turned the quiet residential and shopping area near the Mount Lebanon Hotel into chaos.

Bloody, dazed people stumbled into the dark, seeking aid. Iraqi rescue workers, cast in silhouette against plumes of raging fire, scrambled over shattered concrete blocks to dig through rubble with their bare hands, trying to free screaming victims. Houses nearby were set ablaze by the blast.

The carnage unfolded just blocks from Firdos Square, where a bronze statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled in April with the help of U.S. Marines who had just entered the center of Baghdad.

Military officials estimated 1,000 pounds of explosives, packed with additional artillery shells, carved a 20-foot-wide crater in the road outside the hotel. Just over an hour after the blast, U.S. Army Col. Ralph Baker told reporters at the scene that the bombing was "typical of the kind of attacks we've seen" and speculated it was carried out by Ansar al-Islam, a fundamentalist group that the Bush administration says is linked to al-Qaida.

"This is really some calculated violence directed at Iraqi citizens and Arabs," said Baker, who added that the affected neighborhood had benefited from a growth of small businesses in the past year.

By 11 p.m., Baker said most of the wounded had been taken to hospitals in the area.

The blast, the latest in two dozen large-scale attacks since August, underscored Iraq's instability nearly a year after U.S. forces entered the country and deposed Hussein. It follows a devastating series of bombings against holy sites in Baghdad and Karbala this month that killed more than 180 people.

Military officials have noted a shift in the insurgency toward attacks on "soft" civilian targets and Iraqi police facilities and away from U.S. military posts.

In the past 10 days, there also has been a surge in attacks against foreign civilians, including drive-by shootings this week that killed American missionaries and European engineers.

The Mount Lebanon Hotel did not have concrete blast walls that have become familiar in Baghdad and surround the more prominent hotels housing large numbers of Western journalists and civilian contractors for the occupation authority. Its only security was a private Iraqi guard force armed with automatic weapons, said Lt. Col. Peter Jones, a commander at the scene of the blast.

Jones said an explosives team found an engine block and auto debris that suggested the blast was a car bomb. An eyewitness also described seeing a vehicle slowly approaching the hotel just before the explosion, Jones said.

The attacks occurred on a day when U.S. and Iraqi military forces had launched a broad operation in Baghdad, with troops, helicopters and armored vehicles, to hunt down members of a determined insurgency.

The Bush administration said that such attacks would not change U.S. policy.

"Democracy is taking root in Iraq, and there is no turning back," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. "This is a time of testing, but the terrorists will not prevail."

The Iraqi Governing Council quickly condemned the attack, and members who spoke on Arabs news shows vowed that the blast would not deter the country from its goal to regain sovereignty from its U.S. occupiers.

"I'm appalled and disgusted," said council member Mouwafak al-Rubaie. "They can't get to the coalition. They can't get to the police. ... So they go to [a] hotel. ... The aim is to delay the political process."

One witness described seeing a man with blood on his face and hands crawl out of the hotel's ruins just after the blast. Iraqis who assisted with rescue efforts described seeing bodies torn open and flesh amid the rubble.

"I carried young children and an old woman with a wound to her stomach to the hospital," said ambulance driver Kasem Radhi. "What did they do to deserve this?"

The explosion could be heard from miles away and shattered car windshields and apartment windows blocks way.

Soon after the blast, groups of men gathered at the scene heckled U.S. soldiers securing the area. Many residents and business owners in the neighborhood said they were frustrated with the security situation in Iraq and wondered whether the country was better off under the former regime.

"We were scared of Saddam Hussein," said Siana Baban, whose home about 200 yards away from the blast site was covered in fallen plaster and shattered glass. "At least we did not live in fear of the next bombing."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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