BAGHDAD (AP) – A stealthy suicide bomber slipped into a busy Baghdad hotel and blew himself up in the midst of a gathering of U.S.-allied tribal sheiks, undermining efforts to forge a front against the extremists of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Four of the tribal chiefs were among the 13 victims, police said.
Iraq’s prime minister quickly vowed renewed support for Anbar province’s tribal leaders after the noontime explosion on Monday, which also wounded 27 people and devastated the ground-floor lobby of the high-rise Mansour Hotel.
“We are sure that this crime will not weaken the will of Anbar sheiks,” Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said in a statement.
Late Monday, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in the country, issued a statement calling the hotel bombing “wanton slaughter that shows al-Qaeda’s complete lack of respect for life.”
“The indiscriminate attacks killed numerous civilians, some of whom were Sunni and Shiite sheiks meeting in Baghdad in an attempt to further national reconciliation,” the statement said.
The stunning terror strike in the heart of Baghdad, by a killer penetrating layers of security, was one of a wave of suicide and other bombings that killed at least 46 people across Iraq on Monday, another day of unrelenting violence raising questions about the ability of the reinforced U.S. military to stem the bloodshed here.
In northern Iraq, 13 Iraqi policemen died in what the U.S. military described as a furious bomb and small-arms attack by insurgents on a security post shared by police and U.S. paratroopers.
In Baqouba, north of Baghdad, meanwhile, a week-old U.S.-Iraqi offensive pressed on, street by street, to drive al-Qaeda-linked insurgents from the city’s western side.
Beginning late Sunday, U.S.-Iraqi forces clashed with insurgents in the central market area, an Iraqi army officer reported. “It’s going to get harder before it gets easier during the search,” Brig. Gen. Mick Bednarek, U.S. commander of the operation, told reporters. “We are going into areas we didn’t have the troops to go in before.” The U.S. command reported that two U.S. soldiers were killed Monday in separate attacks in the Baghdad area.
The bomber at the Mansour Hotel, on the west bank of the Tigris River, struck as the lobby bustled with members of news media organizations headquartered at the hotel and other guests, witnesses said.
Among them were a group of sheiks associated with the Anbar Salvation Council, an alliance of Sunni Muslim tribes that have turned against the al-Qaeda in Iraq extremists in a bid to drive them from the western province of Anbar.
Police and security officials said a man wearing traditional Arab garb like the sheiks’, complete with headdress, entered the lobby. He also was wearing a belt of explosives, packed with nails and metal pellets, said these officials, speaking on condition of anonymity. He approached the sheiks and detonated the bomb.
A police officer based at the hotel identified four tribal leaders killed as former Anbar governor Fassal al-Guood, sheik of the Albu Nimr tribe and a Mansour Hotel resident; Sheik Abdul-Azizi al-Fahdawi of the Fahad tribe; and Sheik Tariq Saleh al-Assafi and Col. Fadil al-Nimrawi, both of the Albu Nimr tribe. Three of al-Guood’s guards also were killed, the police officer said.
Another police official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said six of the assembled sheiks were killed. Gen. Aziz al-Yassiri, a Defense Ministry adviser, also died in the hotel attack, a ministry official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Asked whether al-Yassiri had been meeting with the sheiks, this official would say only he was on “an official mission.”
The purpose of Monday’s fatal gathering of tribal chiefs remained unclear.
The U.S. command here has pointed repeatedly to the Anbar group and its opposition to al-Qaeda as an example for other tribes to follow elsewhere in Iraq. But the Salvation Council reportedly has been riven by disagreements, over how closely to work with the U.S. occupation force, for example.
In a statement denouncing the bombing, the U.N. representative here, Ashraf Qazi, referred to it as a meeting “seeking to resolve differences.” But one government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the meeting also involved sheiks from outside Anbar, suggesting an effort to broaden the tribal anti-al-Qaeda front.
All the officials who spoke on condition of anonymity did so either to avoid being singled out for attack or because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
In Anbar, meanwhile, Sheik Jubair Rashid, a Salvation Council member who contended the Mansour meeting involved “former” council members, said they had been “working secretly” on unspecified matters and had met on Sunday with the prime minister.
Police were investigating how the bomber slipped through the Mansour Hotel’s security. “It was a great breach of security because there are three checkpoints, one outside and two inside,” said hotel worker Saif al-Rubaie, 28, who witnessed the blast.
Those killed also included a noted Iraqi poet, Rahim al-Maliki, who was interviewing the Anbar sheiks for a documentary film at the time, and a man and his 4-year-old daughter, residents of the hotel, police said. The attack on the joint U.S.-Iraqi post occurred in Beiji, 155 miles (250 kilometers) north of Baghdad.
The U.S. command said two car bombs were detonated about 8:20 a.m., damaging a police barracks and the outer wall of the joint security station. That was followed by an attack by at least 30 insurgents firing small arms and rocket-propelled grenades, the command said.
Iraqi police and U.S. paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division repelled the attack, it said. The command statement said nothing about insurgent casualties, although local hospital officials reported nine Iraqis killed whom they identified as civilians.
One wounded Iraqi civilian said random gunfire had erupted from the police station after the blast. “I was at the grocery market when the explosion occurred, and I ran with others to the site to see if here were any casualties and I was shot by fire from the police station,” said Khalaf Salim, 40.
Five U.S. soldiers suffered minor wounds in the incident, said Lt. j.g. Karl Lettow, a U.S. command spokesman in Baghdad.
Later Monday morning, a suicide car bomb exploded at a joint U.S.- Iraqi army checkpoint in central Siniyah, nine miles (14.4 kilometers) west of Beiji, killing two Iraqi soldiers and wounding three, the Iraqi army reported. There were no reported U.S. casualties.
Earlier in the morning, a suicide car bomber struck a checkpoint near the governor’s offices in Hillah, a predominantly Shiite city 60 miles (96 kilometers) south of Baghdad, killing at least eight people, including three policemen, and wounding 31, police said.
According to an AP count, at least 1,857 Iraqis have been killed in suicide attacks in 2007, and more than 4,400 have been wounded.