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Thursday, March 18, 2004 - Page updated at 08:43 A.M.
Deadly blast of Iraq 'soft target' thought to be work of Muslim militants
By Letta Tayler
A 22-year-old Briton was among the dead, and three Americans were believed to be among those wounded in the blast, which fit the profile of attacks by Muslim militant groups, according to the U.S. military. It was the latest in a string of attacks on Western civilians working in Iraq.
The bomb created a flash of red light and sent flames leaping toward the sky as it destroyed the front of the five-story Mount Lebanon Hotel and bored a 20-foot-diameter crater into the road. Iraqi rescue workers clawed through the rubble with bare hands to free people.
Screaming victims staggered from the scene. Rescue workers rushed dozens of bloodied bodies into ambulances.
The bomb, which struck one of the busiest commercial areas of downtown Baghdad, destroyed at least three nearby offices and shops and ripped walls off an adjacent clinic. It downed utility poles, reduced a line of parked cars to twisted, flaming metal and shattered windows for blocks.
Soon after the blast the streets around the building were so densely packed with residents, onlookers and reporters that emergency vehicles were briefly blocked. U.S. soldiers cut through the crowd with weapons drawn, yelling for order. The brusque soldiers' tactics angered some in the crowd, who began shouting anti-American slogans.
Mobs of Iraqis shook their fists at U.S. soldiers in tanks cordoning the area and shouted that the blast was prompted by the occupation.
"Is this the freedom the Americans give us?" screamed Fouad al-Shakhily, 51, a former soldier who lives near the hotel. "The freedom to see our people blown to bits?"
The blast startled occupants of the Green Zone, a heavily protected area that houses the headquarters of the U.S.-led occupation across the Tigris river from the hotel.
"We felt the blast here; it was a huge blast," U.S. Army Col. Jill Morgenthaler said. "We're a mile south of that and I thought it was striking next door."
The hotel is in the center of Baghdad, four blocks from Firdaus Square, where just under one year ago Iraqi civilians and American soldiers toppled a statue of Saddam Hussein, an image broadcast around the world. Iraqis and Americans are preparing to mark the first anniversary of the war against Saddam tomorrow.
"Democracy is taking root in Iraq and there is no turning back," he said. "This is a time of testing. We will continue to stay to finish the job for the Iraqi people."
Members of Iraq's U.S.-picked Governing Council condemned the bomb as an effort to incite civil war. "These are terrorists working to hinder our political process and democracy in Iraq, but they won't succeed," said Shiite council member Muwafak al-Rubai.
Several passers-by said they believed the explosion was caused by a U.S. missile, insisting they'd seen a fiery object drop from the sky. But Col. Ralph Baker of the 1st Armored Division said the cause was a car packed with about 1,000 pounds of plastic explosives and artillery shells.
That combination was used in the Aug. 19 suicide bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad that killed 22 people.
"It fits the profile of the terrorist organizations we have been combating in the last year," Baker told CNN. He cited as suspects Jordanian fugitive Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whom Washington has accused of trying to spark civil war in Iraq through bombing attacks; and the militant group Ansar al Islam. Both are believed tied to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida.
Nearby residents said the hotel was Lebanese-owned and lodged Americans, Egyptians and other foreign civilians as well as Iraqis. The hotel was nearly empty at the time of the blast because a group of businessmen had left a day earlier, news reports said.
The blast shook the nearby Palestine Hotel, where many foreign contractors and journalists are based. It also damaged the nearby Swan Lake Hotel, home to many foreigners, including several journalists. The power of the bomb left the bureau of Arabic Al-Jazeera satellite television in a shambles, with windows smashed and televisions hanging from cords.
Inhabitants of the surrounding area are a cross section of Iraqis, including Sunni and Shiite Muslims as well as Kurds.
Unlike military areas and many hotels housing Westerners, the Mount Lebanon Hotel was what officials here call a "soft target," meaning it was not surrounded by concrete barriers to ward off suicide bombers.
A string of bombings has rocked Iraq in recent weeks, most aimed at coalition forces or Iraqi civilians. But last night's bombing, along with the killings in the past week of two Europeans and four American missionaries, suggests militants are deliberately adding foreign civilians to their target lists.
The blast struck as hundreds of U.S. soldiers scoured Baghdad in a massive raid on suspected insurgents and weapons caches, and shortly after the Iraqi Governing Council asked U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to dispatch a U.N. team here to help form an interim government to which the occupying coalition will transfer power on June 30.
Additional information from USA Today, The Associated Press, Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune.
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