BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Suicide bombers blasted through the concrete walls surrounding the Palestine Hotel in central Baghdad, where many foreign journalists live and work, injuring about five people inside the hotel and killing at least six passers-by on the streets outside. None of the dead in the attack was a journalist or member of the U.S. military.
Iraqi National Security Adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie said 20 people were killed in the attack Monday, but the U.S. military said six civilians were killed and 15 wounded. The country”s deputy interior minister said four or five Iraqi police were among those who died in the three bombings.
Al-Rubaie said at least 40 people were injured, most of them passers-by. The five injured inside the hotel were news personnel who suffered minor wounds.
Al-Rubaie, said the attack, which appeared well planned, was a "very clear" effort to take over the hotel and grab foreign and Arab journalists as hostages.
"The plan was very clear to us, which was to take security control over the two hotels, and to take the foreign and Arab journalists as hostages to use them as a bargain," he said. He offered no evidence to support the claim, other than to say the suicide bombers had been armed with rocket-propelled grenades and light arms.
Maj. Gen. Hussein Kamal, the deputy interior minister, disputed that theory. "There is no evidence to support this. This is just an unlikely assumption. If that were the case, then there would have been gunmen with the suicide bombers. There were no gunmen," he said.
But security still photos showed a clear attempt to attack the hotel.
A U.S. Bradley Fighting Vehicle parked inside the hotel compound was destroyed in the blast. No one was inside at the time. But a U.S. soldier inside the compound did fire on the third suicide attacker, the driver of an explosives-laden cement truck.
Security photos showed first a white car drove up to the concrete blast wall that separates the hotel complex from Firdous Square at 5:23 p.m. local time. That vehicle exploded, blasting out a section of the wall.
Two minutes later and on the opposite side of the square, a second car blew up next to the 14th Ramadan Mosque. Then, one minute later, the cement truck drove through the breach in the blast wall and appeared to get about five to six meters (15 to 20 feet) inside the compound when it suddenly stopped. It repeatedly drove short distances back and forth, as if stuck on something, as gunfire broke out. Then it exploded in a huge yellow ball of fire and smoke.
The U.S. military also said it appeared the first car bomb breached the outer barrier and was followed by another car that tried to reach the wall but was stopped by Iraqi security forces near the mosque and detonated.
Then, the military said, the cement truck was fired on by the U.S. soldier from inside the compound. It appeared the truck rocked back and forth before it exploded because it was stuck on debris from the first blast or perhaps because small arms fire had flattened its tires, damaged its engine or wounded the driver.
Britain”s Foreign Secretary Jack Straw condemned the attack saying, the indiscriminate killings had been carried out in the name of a "totally perverted ideology. It is a further illustration of the evil that we are dealing with," Straw said.
In New York, the Committee to Protect Journalists issued a statement condemning the bombings. "These appalling attacks are fresh reminders of the myriad dangerous facing those who continue to report from Iraq," CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said.
The hotel complex has come under rocket fire from insurgents in the past, although there have been no media fatalities. Two journalists died when a U.S. tank opened fire on the Palestine in April 2003 as American forces captured Baghdad. The CPJ said the killings were not deliberate but could have been avoided.
After the bombings Monday, Iraqi forces opened up with heavy automatic weapons fire, apparently firing at random. There was no sign of a further assault on the hotel.
The U.S. military has a checkpoint at the only vehicle entrance on the opposite side of the hotel compound from Firdous Square, where a giant statue of Saddam Hussein was pulled down after U.S. troops captured Baghdad.
U.S. soldiers maintain a presence inside the hotel compound. Afterward they increased their numbers on the perimeter of the 5-acre compound, which also includes the Sheraton Hotel.
Glass was shattered, light fixtures were blown down and false ceilings were knocked off their hangers throughout the 19th story hotel. It was last hit in an insurgent rocket attack on Oct. 7, 2004. There was minor damage but no one was hurt.