Suicide bombers attack Baghdad hotel

October 25, 2005|By SOLOMON MOORE | SOLOMON MOORE,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, IRAQ -- Insurgents exploded two sport utility vehicles and a cement mixer yesterday in a spectacular series of suicide attacks on the Palestine Hotel, a base for many journalists in the Iraqi capital.

At least five police officers and a civilian were reported dead, and scores of people were wounded, but casualty reports varied widely.

Though the death toll yesterday was not nearly as high as in other suicide attacks this year, the significance of the assault went beyond casualty statistics. The two high-rise hotels - the Palestine and the neighboring Sheraton - have been symbols of the foreign presence in Iraq.

The bombings were the first major attacks against a foreign civilian target since the attacks of late 2003, in which suicide bombers destroyed the headquarters of the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The first blast in the Firdos Square area went off about 5:20 p.m. when an SUV rammed a two-foot-thick protective concrete wall in front of the hotel and exploded, breaching the barrier, according to the U.S. military.

Minutes later, a Jeep Cherokee drove eastbound from the square, away from the hotel and toward the Ministry of Agriculture. Iraqi police fired at the vehicle before it detonated near a mosque.

The cement mixer appeared seconds later, U.S. military officials said, rumbling through the hole in the hotel wall. A U.S. soldier fired at the truck, which got tangled in the debris from the first blast. Then it exploded in a huge plume of fire and smoke, hobbling a Bradley fighting vehicle and crumpling nearby cars like paper.

The blasts were filmed by several journalists who were in the hotel at the time. Terrorism experts said the coordinated explosions around the square - perhaps best known to Americans as the site where a statue of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was toppled shortly after the March 2003 invasion - were designed for maximum exposure.

"This demonstrates their resolve and courage to impact us, to create fear," said Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert with the Rand Corp., a California-based think tank. "But it also is aimed at their own audience, their own constituents, to demonstrate their prowess to their own warrior subculture."

The blasts were similar to other large-scale suicide operations this year. In April, suicide bombers used a similar strategy to punch a hole through a wall protecting Camp Gannon, an isolated Marine base on the Syrian border. Insurgents tried to drive a fire engine through the gap, but detonated the truck without harming any troops.

Also that month, up to 40 suicide bombers marshaled an attack against Abu Ghraib prison that culminated with a tanker truck explosion meant to break the outer wall. U.S. troops ultimately repelled the attack, and said it was the most audacious and well-coordinated assault they had seen since the war began. The April attacks were videotaped by insurgents and posted on the Internet.

An hour after yesterday's explosions, three craters were still smoldering. The bombs lopped off the tops of several palm trees and shattered windows up to a mile away. Blackened cars, shot through by flying metal, stank of oil and burning rubber. There was blood all over the street.

Ten women in black abayas sat on the curb in front of a house 25 feet away from the initial blast, shrieking in grief.

A tailor named Ahmed Hassan, 66, peered through broken windows into his demolished shop. Desks were overturned and bashed to bits. Amid the debris, one could see chunks of metal thrown by the bomb. Hassan's shirt was blotched with blood.

When the first blast went off, "the plaster fell down and smashed my strong table. I went outside, but I heard shooting so, thank God, I went back inside," Hassan said. "Somebody shouted at the driver: `Stop! They will shoot!' And then another explosion. I felt something lift me up and throw me down."

Abu Mohammed, 45, who has a shop within sight of the Palestine Hotel, said the first explosion cut short the Muslim call to evening prayer. "It was very huge - it was the biggest explosion I have ever seen," he said.

The Palestine Hotel has been the site of several violent incidents. In November 2003, insurgent rockets struck the building. That April, an American tank fired on the hotel, killing three journalists.

Next door, the Sheraton Hotel, also known as the Ishtar, was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade fired by insurgents in December 2003 and by three rockets in July 2004.

Though the Interior Ministry said 10 people were killed in yesterday's blasts, other sources offered different tallies in the hours after the attacks. The U.S. military said that six people had died. An Iraqi police officer at the scene said as many as 20 had died.

Solomon Moore writes for the Los Angeles Times. The New York Times contributed to this article.

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