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More bombings in Iraq as anniversary nears
Updated: 2004-03-19 01:10

A car bomb exploded as a British military patrol passed by in the southern city of Basra Thursday, killing three Iraqi civilians and the suicide bomber himself, police said.

Meanwhile, rescue crews called off their search for survivors of a massive suicide bombing of a hotel that killed at least 17 people, just days before the anniversary of the start of the US-led war in Iraq.

Attacks and suicide bombings in Iraq are growing more frequent and the death toll is growing.

Several people were injured in the explosion in central Basra. Ambulances rushed to the area to evacuate the wounded.

The owner of the car that exploded near the bus was seen parking the vehicle and walking away moments before the blast, witnesses said. Residents detained him and handed him over to police. British forces are responsible for security in the area.

The military said 27 people were killed in the Baghdad bombing, but US Army Colonel Jill Morgenthaler Thursday put the death toll at 17. She gave no explanation as to why it was revised downward. Governing Council official Rowsch Shawayas said Iraqi authorities put the toll at "about 20."

Elsewhere, gunmen opened fire on a minibus, killing three Iraqi journalists and wounding nine other employees of a coalition-funded TV station in northeastern Iraq, police said.

Rebels often target Iraqis perceived as American collaborators and the attacks underlined the continued vulnerability of Iraqi civilians nearly a year after Saddam Hussein was ousted.

Insurgents also fired mortar rounds at two US military bases on Wednesday, killing three American soldiers and wounding nine others, the military said Thursday. The deaths brought to 567 the number of US troops killed in Iraq since the start of hostilities last year, according to US Department of Defence figures.

At least 45 people were wounded in Wednesday's car bomb attack on the Mount Lebanon Hotel in the heart of Baghdad. One Briton was killed and another was wounded, the British government said.

Morgenthaler confirmed the attack was a suicide bombing but said the destroyed Mount Lebanon Hotel may not have been the intended target because the vehicle loaded with explosives was in the middle of the street and not parked in front of the hotel.

She said it was not clear what the target may have been. The hotel is in the middle of a busy district that is both commercial and residential.

Shawayas, the council official, said the vehicle was moving at the time of the explosion, indicating it was a suicide attack.

The explosion, which left a jagged 6-meter-wide crater, also torched nearby homes, offices, cars and shops, sending dazed and wounded people stumbling from the wreckage.

A spokesman for the Iraqi Governing Council, Hamid al-Kafaai, blamed al-Qaida for the blast but offered no evidence to support the accusation.

"It is aimed at terrorizing the civilians, destabilizing the country and hampering the democratic march in the country,'' he said.

A US counterterrorism official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said al-Qaida-linked Jordanian Islamic militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is among those suspected of playing a key role.

The Mount Lebanon was a so-called soft target because it did not have concrete blast barriers and other security measures that protect offices of the US-led coalition and buildings where Westerners live and work.

Shawayas said the attack on the relatively unprotected target was "evidence this terrorist group is weak and cannot get to important targets."

He said the attackers were foreigners, according to collected evidence, which he did not disclose.

US-funded Arabic Al-Hurra television station captured the blast on video. As a massive fire ball explodes into the night sky about a kilometre (half mile) away and a second later a thunderous boom is heard, an Iraqi woman in a Muslim shawl who was about to be interviewed ducks for cover.

Rescuers pulled two more bodies from the rubble before dawn Thursday and smoke was still pouring from the site 12 hours after the explosion.

The nationalities of all the dead were not immediately known, though the majority are expected to be Iraqi.

A Moroccan, three Jordanians, two Britons, two Lebanese and an Egyptian were registered as having rooms in the Lebanese-owned hotel on the night of the blast, hotel duty manager Bashir Abdel-Hadi said.

He said among those killed were the hotel's three security guards, who were standing in front of it at the time.

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More bombings in Iraq as anniversary nears


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