Blast demolishes UN office in Baghdad
( 2003-08-20 06:52) (Agencies)
A cement truck packed with explosives detonated outside the offices of the top U.N. envoy in Iraq on Tuesday, killing him and 19 other people and devastating the U.N. headquarters here in an unprecedented suicide attack against the world body. At least 100 people were wounded.
The bombing blasted a 6-foot-deep crater in the ground, shredded the facade of the Canal Hotel housing U.N. offices and stunned an organization that had been welcomed by many Iraqis, in contrast to the U.S.-led occupation forces.
Except for a newly built concrete wall, U.N. officials at the headquarters refused the sort of heavy security that the U.S. military has put up around some sensitive civilian sites. The United Nations "did not want a large American presence outside," Salim Lone, the U.N. spokesman in the Iraqi capital, said.
Emergency workers pulled bloodied survivors from the rubble and lined up the dead in body bags. Survivors reported other victims still buried.
The 4:30 p.m. blast may have specifically targeted Sergio Vieira de Mello, the top U.N. envoy, said L. Paul Bremer, who heads the U.S.-led administration in Iraq. "The truck was parked in such a place here in front of the building that it had to affect his office," Bremer said.
Vieira de Mello ¡ª a 55-year-old veteran diplomat serving in what one U.N. spokesman called the world body's toughest assignment ¡ª was meeting with other U.N. officials in his office when the explosion brought the room down around them. Vieira de Mello was wounded and trapped in the rubble, and workers gave him water as they tried to extricate him. Hours later, the United Nations announced his death.
"Those who killed him have committed a crime, not only against the United Nations but against Iraq itself," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a statement, calling the Brazilian diplomat "an outstanding servant of humanity."
U.N. officials vowed to continue their mission in Iraq. But the blast, the shock at being targeted and the death of a rising star beloved in the organization struck deep. All the national flags that ring the U.N. headquarters' entrance in New York were removed from their poles, and the blue-and-white U.N. flag was lowered to half staff. Staffers, tears in their eyes, gathered in hallways and watched in shock as televisions reported on his death.
U.S. President Bush, at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, called the bombers "enemies of the civilized world."
"These killers will not determine the future of Iraq," Bush said. "Every sign of progress in Iraq adds to the desperation of the terrorists and the remnants of Saddam's brutal regime."
U.N. and U.S. officials called the bombing a "terrorist attack," but there was no immediate claim of responsibility. The bombing came nearly two weeks after a car exploded and killed 19 people at the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad and after a string of dramatic attacks on oil and water pipelines in Iraq.
Like the remote-controlled explosion at the Jordan Embassy, the suicide bombing on the U.N. headquarters focused on a high-profile target with many civilians inside and resembled attacks blamed on Islamic militants elsewhere in the world. It was far more sophisticated than the guerrilla attacks that have plagued U.S. forces, featuring hit-and-run shootings carried out by small bands or remote control roadside bombs.
As FBI agents joined the investigation, Bernard Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner who is rebuilding the Iraqi police force, told reporters that evidence suggested the attack was a suicide bombing.
But he said it was "much too early" to say if Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network was behind the attack. "We don't have that kind of evidence yet."
U.S. forces have been focusing on trying to put down Saddam Hussein loyalists thought to be behind the guerrilla campaign against American troops. But the military has also warned of foreign Islamic militants slipping into the country and has said an al-Qaida linked group, Ansar al-Islam was a possible suspect in the Jordanian Embassy bombing.
Dia'a Rashwan, an expert on radical Islam at Egypt's Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said the attack fits "the ideology of al-Qaida. They consider the U.N. one of the international actors who helped the Americans to occupy Palestine and, later, Iraq."
U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said that if Tuesday's attack was confirmed to be a suicide bombing "it would, to my knowledge, be the first on a U.N. facility." It was the worst attack on a U.N. facility since Israeli forces, responding to a Hezbollah attack, bombarded a U.N. compound at Qana in southern Lebanon in April 1996, killing 91 refugees.
Fifteen bodies in white bags were counted by a U.N. worker at the hotel, and a survey of Baghdad hospitals by The Associated Press found five other people who had died in the blast. U.N. officials said 14 of those killed were U.N. workers and 100 people were wounded.
An AP reporter counted 40 wounded people lying in the front garden and receiving first aid. Some were loaded into a constant stream of helicopters which ferried the injured away. A senior UNICEF official also was seriously wounded in the blast, U.N. officials said.
"I can't move. I can't feel my legs and arms. Dozens of people I know are still under the ruins," Majid Al-Hamaidi, 43, a driver for the World Bank, cried out.
Bremer, the top U.S. administrator, walked through the scene of destruction as workers dug through the rubble with their hands. Dozens of U.S. Humvees were at the scene and at least two Black Hawk helicopters hovered above.
Bremer had tears in his eyes and hugged Hassan al-Salame, an adviser to Vieira de Mello. A part of the building collapsed near him. People cried: "Watch out. Watch Out."
"We will leave no stone unturned to find the perpetrators of this attack," he said.
Among the dead were a Canadian and a Dane. One wounded man had a yard-long, inch-thick aluminum rod driven into his face just below his right eye. He identified himself as a security consultant for the International Monetary Fund, saying he had just arrived in the country over the weekend.
Vieira de Mello began work June 2 and would have finished his assignment at the end of September, though his spokesman Lone said many U.N. officials wanted him to stay on.
Deputy Syrian ambassador Fayssal Mekdad, whose country holds the Security Council presidency, said "such terrorist incidents cannot break the will of the international community" and that U.N. programs would continue.
The United Nations distributes humanitarian aid and is developing programs aimed at boosting Iraq's emerging free press, justice system and monitoring of human rights. United Nations weapons inspectors worked out of the hotel during the period before the war.
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