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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Car Bomb Explodes Outside Baghdad Hotel

Aired March 17, 2004 - 13:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

MILES O'BRIEN, ANCHOR: While we were listening, we have some updated casualty counts, which come to us via the Associated Press. A.P. now reporting at least 27 killed and 41 injured in that blast which occurred a little more than an hour and 25 minutes ago in central Baghdad, not far from that square where we all saw the statue of Saddam Hussein come down on April 9 of last year.
The Karada district, it is called, Firdos Square, specifically, a hotel called the Jabal Lebanon, or Mount Lebanon Hotel. And clearly leveled: not much there but a huge deep crater.

And multiple casualties: 27 killed, as we're telling you now. Forty-one injured, according to the Associated Press.

Walt Rodgers is not far from the scene in the Palestine Hotel where the CNN encampment is.

And Walt, one of the things that strikes me in reading some of these reports is that U.S. soldiers responded to this scene, were trying to help pull bodies from the wreckage of the hotel, and many angry Iraqis actually pushed those U.S. soldiers back.

That's a little vignette which tells us a lot, I think.

WALTER RODGERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It does, indeed. It tells you the temper of the Arab street, which may contradict somewhat what you're hearing from the White House a few moments ago about democracy taking root here.

We have heard those reports, U.S. Army officers first -- and soldiers of the 1st Armored Division rushed to the scene to try to help the survivors buried in the rubble of the Mount Lebanon Hotel.

We also need to tell you we're getting reports now from eyewitnesses that said there may have been American and British guests inside that particular hotel.

It is a small residential hotel. Five stories. It is not the area where the main U.S. contractors and journalists stay. That's a much better fortified hotel. This hotel was obviously a soft target, an easy target for someone with a car or truck bomb.

U.S. officials have all but confirmed it was a vehicle bomb. It has the signature of a vehicle bomb. There's a very large crater in the road, about 20 feet across, the kind you see whenever a large degree -- a large amount of explosives are delivered by a truck or car. Again, my colleague, Jane Arraf, was on the scene. She, too, said that the explosion was caused by a car bomb about an hour and 25 minutes ago.

The bomb, coincidentally, went off as the United States Army began a major sweep through Baghdad earlier today, trying to prevent this sort of thing from happening, trying to stop extremists from attacking civilians, trying to confiscate weapons and bomb making materials.

This operation, called Operation Iron Promise, which began today, was to run for several days. It got off to a very sour start, given this explosion here tonight. As you were pointing out, Miles, the A.P. is saying 27 dead.

The -- And CNN has also just confirmed those same numbers, 27 dead. Those numbers are likely to grow. Many, many injured, according to the Iraqi police -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Walt, give us a sense here for just a moment. You say there's a possibility there were American and British guests in this hotel, which would be classified clearly as a soft target: a small hotel, residential hotel, out of the way in some respects, certainly not the kind of target that you see in these large high-rise hotels.

What sorts of Americans and Brits would be there? Clearly, the military wouldn't be there; the media wouldn't be there. Who might be staying there?

RODGERS: What's most likely to be there -- and this is speculation -- but this is what we're seeing. We're seeing businessmen, small businessmen coming in from Britain and the United States, sometimes non-government organization workers, coming to these small residential hotels.

And what they do is work in Baghdad, trying to get contracts with the new Iraqi government, trying to get contracts with the provisional -- with the coalition forces here. And they're trying to literally to drum up business.

And perhaps what they weren't told when they came here is that Baghdad is an extraordinarily dangerous environment; westerners are increasingly targeted.

By the way there were also said to be businessmen from the Gulf Arab states, other Arabs staying in that hotel. It was a mixed residential and commercial neighborhood.

Many other buildings in the area were also damaged in that, in what's described as a mixed Sunni and Shia neighborhood.

You come here to do business, you come here as a journalist, you're gambling with your life. It's very dangerous. Private security officials will tell you over and over again. If you're a Westerner, you're a target. If you come to Baghdad, it's much more dangerous now than it was just two months ago -- Miles. O'BRIEN: Walt, let's -- a few more words on that, if you would. You have an interesting perspective on this having, a year ago now, been headed up the desert with U.S. troops, embedded, as it were.

Then you had a stint, sort of midway between now and then, and now you are there now. I'm just curious if you can just take us through that progression on how Baghdad has changed for the worst or better, when it relates to security.

RODGERS: Despite what you're hearing from official Washington, Baghdad is much less safe now for Westerners then it was immediately after the collapse of Saddam's regime. And it is less safe now than when U.S. forces initially entered the area.

That's because the resistance fighters -- the White House prefers to call them terrorists, but these are resistance fighters, some hangovers from the Saddam regime. Some of them may, indeed, be Islamist terrorists. Others, however, are Iraqi patriots who want to throw the Americans out.

What's changed is the situation is worse if you're an Iraqi in the sense that the Iraqi people have no jobs now. Many of them have no work at all.

In some ways, the situation is better. There are better schools; they've been rebuilt. There are some clean water supplies. But that's the whole purpose of these attacks on the Western civilians who are here, working.

The insurgents want to prevent the American and the coalition experiment here in Iraq from succeeding, and they have turned this into a free-fire zone.

Four Baptist missionaries in Mosul were killed for trying to save souls earlier this week. Two European civil workers, down around Karbala, killed, drive-by shooting, just last night. They were killed as they were trying to help the Iraqis build a potable water project.

The insurgents here want this to fail and they want to institute chaos in Iraq. And they have recreated an environment which is hostile to Westerners and dangerous for Iraqis -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: CNN's Walt Rodgers at the Palestine Hotel, not far from this scene, this scene of carnage. Call it resistance; call it terrorism; call it insurgency; it is brutality.

And as we are reporting now, in excess of two dozen killed, numerous others injured in the wake of this powerful explosion at a small residential hotel in the shadow of that statue that toppled little more than a year ago in central Baghdad -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: Our Aaron Brown has been traveling throughout the region. He's actually in Islamabad, Pakistan, right now, just recently, he sat down for a one-on-one with general John Abizaid, of course, the head of U.S. Central Command, the head of the forces there on the ground in Baghdad. Aaron, you said when you sat down with the general, he actually predicted something like this could happen.

AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: Well, it is the view of the general of the military, generally, that this period between now and June 30th, when the CPA hands over sovereignty back to the Iraqis, is the most dangerous period. They felt certain it would be as violent as any period since the end of major combat, and they believed this because they believe that the -- not so much the Baathists, but the al Qaeda affiliates, the Zarqawi, group that's operating in Iraq, is literally trying to create a civil war, and they -- it is the view of the military that if sovereignty is handed over before that civil war starts, it won't start. So they have to do it now.

So I can say with some confidence that General Abizaid and his senior staff are hardly surprised. I guarantee you, they're heart broken, but hardly surprised by what's happened today.

PHILLIPS: So as you, I'm not quite sure how long you've been in the region, Aaron, if you have been...

BROWN: We've been here...

PHILLIPS: Yes?

BROWN: I'm sorry, we've been here a week now.

PHILLIPS: A week now. And have you made your way over to Iraq, or have you been spending most of your time in Pakistan?

BROWN: No, no, we've been through Iraq, and we came out of Iraq last night -- I'm sorry -- the day before yesterday, into Pakistan, where we talked with Secretary of State Powell today.

PHILLIPS: And has the secretary of state, I mean, what did he say to you, what has been said, I guess, as he has been addressing troops and other Iraqis, getting ready, of course, to hopefully take over a new government there. What has he said about security, and situations like this?

BROWN: Well, it is -- this -- the incident that's happened in Baghdad today, happened as best I can put this together, about 15 or 20 minutes after the interview with the secretary. So he -- neither he nor I could possibly address it.

In a general way, it is the view of the American government that this is a very dangerous time for the reasons that we talked about a moment ago. It's dangerous -- you know, any circumstance in Iraq these days, but it's particularly dangerous now, because the clock is ticking on this handover at the end of June.

Now just a couple of other observations here, and that's all they are, as we look at this, as you look at this, from somewhat afar here in Pakistan. This is not the kind of attack that has been to this point the work of the Baathist holdout. They've been more inclined to use the improvised explosive devices. They have been more inclined to attack American troops than Iraqi civilians. This is much more like the attack in Karbala on the Islamic holiday of Ashura, what now two weeks ago or so, that claimed so many lives. It is absolutely the view of the American military that that attack, those car bombings, were the work of Zarqawi, this al Qaeda affiliate, who is operating viewers almost certainly will recall that the military intelligence intercepted a letter, a memo that Zarqawi had written, where he essentially laid out the plan. He said we're going to have to kill Muslim to create this civil war. If we're going to win this, we have to do this before the handover, because after the handover, we don't have an argument anymore, because the Iraqis, theoretically are back in control of their own government.

So while we can't know who is responsible for this yet -- it's way too early for that, we can, based on everything that's happened in the last months, make a pretty educated guess, that of the three groups that are operating in Iraq against the American and coalition effort, the Baathist, the Zarqawi, al Qaeda types, and the random jihadists who just seem to be coming into the country in twos and three, this is likely, likely the work of the Zarqawi, Al Qaeda affiliate types.

PHILLIPS: Well, you talk about the twists and timing, Daryn. It was one year ago today I remember getting briefed on the U.S.-led invasion that was about to happen, and it was a day later, tomorrow, a year ago tomorrow, that you and I were doing live shots on OIF in the beginning of that. Interesting twist.

Aaron Brown, in Islamabad, Pakistan. We will talk to you more as the story continues to unfold.

O'BRIEN: Let's turn it now to the deputy interior minister of Iraq right now. Ahmed Kadhim Inbrahim is on the line with us. He is in Baghdad.

Mr. Inbrahim, where are you? Are you at the scene?

AHMED KADHIM INBRAHIM, IRAQI DEPUTY INTERIOR MINISTER: Yes, I am in this area, around it. Because I drive near that explosion. When I saw that, I go directly.

And No. 1, I have older woman and man -- and the other people, the injured, in hospital, in hospital Baghdad. Because that bomb happened in the back of hospital.

It is near the hotel (ph). And we know there is many people in that hospital and some of them need surgery: old men, old women, the children, and my police, I sent them directly to help these people. Because, you know, it is much smoke in this area. (UNINTELLIGIBLE)

O'BRIEN: Mr. Inbrahim, can you tell us -- are you in a position to tell us the number of casualties, fatalities and injuries?

INBRAHIM: Injuries, 40 person. And dead, 27 person right now. And we check again. Because some of them is in the ground. The houses -- the houses fall down. And there were people inside that house. O'BRIEN: So there were other structures, other buildings that were damaged heavily?

INBRAHIM: Yes, they damaged, they're damaged because there is a car bomb -- and there were five or more (ph) in that car -- you know, there's -- yes.

O'BRIEN: There's no doubt this was a car bomb, from your perspective then?

INBRAHIM: Yes, car bomb. And there is a hotel and hospital. You know, there is many people in this area. They put the car in the garage and then executed the car.

And the hotel, many people injured and many people -- There are 27 people dead and -- all this area. But in hospital, only the people injured -- from the glasses, from the windows, they injured. Some of them, they have surgery here.

O'BRIEN: And how many hospitals have injured people right now in Baghdad?

INBRAHIM: Total is at now, 27. We will check it. Maybe we will find them all. But right now I know there is 27 injured and 40 dead. And now I think there's another taken from the -- from the ground, also, he is dead. His body is black, because I think he was near that explosion.

O'BRIEN: And could you give us a sense as far as the response, the recovery effort, and the rescuers, do you have enough resources to pull those who might be injured in that wreckage out of the wreckage and rubble?

INBRAHIM: Please, I don't know the question exactly. You can repeat again?

O'BRIEN: How many Iraqi officials are on the scene? Do you have enough people?

INBRAHIM: This -- only Iraqi people. Right now. Right now. I know there's Iraqi people. We check it tomorrow because -- it's dark and there is much in the ground and many people -- the problem -- not with the bomb only, the problem with the civilian, all they want -- go and -- all want to take out the people. We have the people and push other people to go out. This is very difficult for us.

O'BRIEN: And just a final thought could you share with us your thoughts on the impact of what we're seeing here?

INBRAHIM: I see many, many fire car, many ambulance, they want help, they want -- the people from under the ground. Because the house -- some houses in this area is damaged, and the people inside that house.

O'BRIEN: Ahmed Kadhim Inbrahim is the deputy interior minister of Iraq -- Kyra. PHILLIPS: Well, as Mr. Inbrahim was mentioning, the people there that were trapped underneath the rubble. We're going to go straight to the scene now.

Colonel Ralph Baker with the U.S. Army there in Baghdad is on the ground.

(COLONEL RALPH BAKER INTERVIEW)

PHILLIPS: We've got to take you to the vice president of the United States, Dick Cheney, there at the Reagan Presidential Library.

We'll listen in.

(DICK CHENEY SPEECH)

PHILLIPS: All right. We have been listening to the Vice President Dick Cheney. He is at the Reagan library in Simi Valley, California.

And we'll continue to monitor that. But the press of news causes us to press on here and continue our coverage of this explosion in Baghdad.

Now a little shy of more than two hours ago since that explosion rocked Central Baghdad, right near where that statue came down of Saddam Hussein on April 9, most famously.

Residential hotel there, the Jabal Lebanon Hotel. The Karada district of Baghdad, it is called, just across the river from the so- called Green Zone, the heavily fortified area where the U.S. forces are headquartered.

Joining us on the line right now is Melinda Liu. She is a correspondent for "Newsweek" magazine. She's been to the scene, is now in Baghdad, but in a safer location.

Melinda, just describe the scene as you saw it.

MELINDA LIU, "NEWSWEEK": I got there very, very soon after the blast, because I just happened to be talking to a friend whose house was, like, just a few blocks away.

There was a huge -- first of all there was a flash of light, a huge explosion. And so my photographer and I got in our car, and we went over there.

It -- When we arrived, it was very early on. And quite a chaotic scene. There were -- this hotel was on fire. It's a five-story hotel. Thick cloud of black smoke. Of course, it was night, so it was hard to see what was going on.

There were hospital -- hospital ambulances taking injured away. The crowd was quite agitated, very emotional. And as injured people started being extracted from the rubble -- like I saw people carrying -- in one case it was a man carrying the limp body of a girl, maybe his daughter, I don't know. And in another case, a man kind of helping an injured person who was bleeding.

Anyway, as these people were straggling out onto the streets there was a lot of anger and a lot of anguish. And at that point my photographer and I were sort of the target of some hostile behavior, pushed around a bit, jostled about. I was pushed to the ground.

And an Iraqi guy came up and said, "You've got to get out of here." So he sort of spirited me away.

Anyway, we saw -- we saw some soldiers there in Humvees and the Bradley fighting vehicles, and they were trying to help with the rescue effort. But we also heard that they had been -- at least initially, the target of some hostile behavior, as well.

At one point there was some gunfire. I don't know who was shooting, whether they were shooting in the air, maybe, or what. But because it was such a chaotic scene, my photographer and I left.

We -- so I cannot confirm numbers of casualties, or even whether it was a car bomb, but it was a very big explosion. It was certainly bigger than -- you know, bigger than an RPG, or something like that.

I do know that the -- one Iraqi official is speculating that it was a rocket and, indeed, there are Iraqis on the ground who said they saw a -- something in the air, right before the explosion, which would be consistent with a rocket.

But I -- this is all speculation. I don't think anyone -- certainly, I cannot confirm what sort of explosive it was.

O'BRIEN: Well, Melinda, given the size of the crater and the extent of the damage, it has led a lot of people to conclude it was most likely a car bomb. But I don't want to get us into an area of expertise that neither of us has.

If you could just explain for us a bit of the context that leads to this open hostility toward Westerners and U.S. troops specifically.

LIU: Well, it's not -- it's not an unusual reaction in Iraq. Basically, this sort of behavior has -- has kind of popped up whenever there's a scene of mass casualties such as the Ashora explosions in Karbala and Cardamia (ph), the Cardamia (ph) area of Baghdad just a couple of weeks ago.

Basically, you have extremely distraught people -- relatives of injured or even dead. They want to take out their emotions on somebody and they particularly blame Americans for not bringing security to the situation.

You know, and again, my experience was, yes, there was a (unintelligible) guy who pushed me on the ground but, on the other hand, it was also a very friendly stranger who was an Iraqi who helped me and got me out of the situation, so I don't think we can say that it was a uniformly hostile crowd. It was just a very emotional situation. O'BRIEN: All right, Melinda, thank you. I'm afraid we're going to have to interrupt you to get back to the vice president. I do appreciate it.

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