Attack drives US forces from Baghdad HQ
( 2003-10-27 08:48) (Agencies)
The U.S. occupation authority retreated from its headquarters Sunday after Iraqi insurgents, using a "science project" of a rocket launcher, attacked the heavily guarded hotel with a missile barrage that killed an American colonel, wounded 18 other people and sent the visiting deputy defense secretary scurrying for safety.
Paul Wolfowitz, the shaken-looking but unhurt Pentagon deputy, said the strike against the Al Rasheed Hotel, from nearly point-blank range, "will not deter us from completing our mission" in Iraq.
But the bold blow at the heart of the U.S. presence here clearly rattled U.S. confidence that it is defeating Iraq's shadowy insurgents.
"We'll have to get the security situation under control," Secretary of State Colin Powell told NBC's "Meet the Press."
The assault was likely planned over at least the past two months, a top U.S. commander said, as the insurgents put together the improvised rocket launcher and figured out how to wheel it into the park just across the street from the hotel.
The effect of the 6:10 a.m. volley of rockets was dramatic: U.S. officials and officers fled from the Al Rasheed, some still in pajamas or shorts to a nearby convention center. The concrete western face of the 18-story building was pockmarked with a half-dozen or more blast holes, and windows shattered in at least two dozen rooms.
The modern, 462-room Al-Rasheed, housing civilian officials of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority and U.S. military personnel, is a symbol of the occupation. The assault highlighted the vulnerability of even heavily guarded U.S. facilities in Iraq, where American forces sustain an average of 26 lower-profile attacks daily, and where Wolfowitz came to assess ways to defeat the stubborn 6-month-old insurgency.
More than 15 hours after the rocket fire and after U.S. security officials flooded the neighborhood, two explosions went off in the same downtown area. An Iraqi policeman said an assailant fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a U.S. convoy next to the al-Mansour Hotel, about a mile away from the Al Rasheed. There were no casualties, he said.
A day earlier, a rocket-propelled grenade forced down a U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter north of Baghdad, the 4th Infantry Division confirmed Sunday. The incident occurred just hours after Wolfowitz left that area on the second day of his three-day visit. One soldier was injured.
The U.S. command said the wounded included seven American civilians, four U.S. military personnel and five non-U.S. civilians working for the coalition. Two Iraqi security guards also were hurt. The command did not immediately identify the dead American, but Wolfowitz said he was a U.S. colonel.
A senior FBI official said the bureau, the Defense Department, the State Department and Iraqi police were all involved in the investigation. Wolfowitz and his aides were very close to the area of the hotel that was struck, but there was no indication the attack was directed at Wolfowitz, the Pentagon said.
Brig. Gen. Martin Dempsey of the 1st Armored Division said he believed the insurgents timed the attack with the lifting this weekend of an overnight curfew in Baghdad and the reopening of a main city bridge.
"Any time we demonstrate a return to normalcy, there are those who will push back at that," said Dempsey, who is responsible for security in Baghdad.
Iraqi police said the attacker or attackers boldly drove a white Chevrolet pickup to the edge of the city's main Zawra Park and Zoo, just 400 yards southwest of the hotel, towing what looked like a portable, two-wheeled generator.
A police commander said on condition of anonymity that when security guards approached, the assailants drove off, but rockets within the blue trailer apparently had been set to fire via a timer and suddenly ignited, flashing toward the hotel, a clear shot looming just over the treetops.
"When he saw us, he fled," guard Jabbar Tarek said of the driver. The guards weren't armed, Tarek said, or "I would have fired on him."
Tarek and one other guard were lightly injured by rockets that exploded prematurely, Dempsey said.
"I thought my house was being destroyed, it was such a huge sound," Hamoudi Mutlag, 48, said of the rockets' impact.
An Al Rasheed maintenance worker, he was asked whether he now feared staying in his house, situated between the firing point and the hotel.
"Every place in Baghdad is dangerous now that the Americans are here," he said.
Dempsey said the attackers welded together a 40-pod launcher that held both 68mm and 85mm artillery rockets. Between eight and 10 struck the hotel, and 11 never left their tubes, he said.
The division commander said the insurgent operation required "some reconnaissance and some rehearsal," and possibly two months' preparation. The device was not sophisticated ¡ª "a science project in a garage with a welder and a battery and a handful of wires" ¡ª but it was effective, he said.
"There is no guarantee we can protect against this kind of thing unless we have soldiers on every block," one of Dempsey's reconnaissance officers, 1st Lt. Brian Dowd, said at the scene.
The general said his troops had to disarm booby-trap explosives attached to the trailer before towing it away.
A coalition official said on condition of anonymity that the authority later ordered the hotel evacuated indefinitely, its hundreds of guests to be scattered among other lodging places in the so-called "Green Zone," a heavily guarded district along the Tigris River that includes the palace headquarters of the authority, the offices of the interim Iraqi Governing Council, and the Convention Center housing coalition press relations and other offices.
The formerly government-owned Al Rasheed, Baghdad's best-known luxury hotel, was taken over by occupation authorities after U.S.-British forces toppled the Baathist government of President Saddam Hussein in April.
The well-planned attack was the second on the hotel, which was hit Sept. 27 by small rockets or rocket-propelled grenades that caused minimal damage and no casualties.
In his brief morning statement, Wolfowitz spoke of "even bigger news" than the hotel attack ¡ª the growing number of Iraqis being trained and equipped "and going out on patrols, fighting these criminals."
The U.S. administration largely blames die-hard Saddam loyalists and foreign fighters for the continuing hit-and-run guerrilla war. But other Iraqis opposed to the U.S. occupation also are believed to be participating in the resistance.
At his news conference, Dempsey noted the number of attacks started surging in September.
"Why haven't the number of attacks gone down? I don't know the answer to that," he said. The U.S. command is "still trying ... to figure out exactly why that happened."
Also Sunday, a Spanish army sergeant died after being shot accidentally by a colleague, Spain's defense ministry said.
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