- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 20, 2003

BAGHDAD — FBI agents who yesterday took charge of the investigation into a massive truck bombing outside the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad said the bomb was made with old munitions looted from Iraqi military facilities after the war.

While the agents refused to speculate, the finding suggests that the attack had been carried out by holdovers from the ousted regime of Saddam Hussein rather than extremists who have been filtering into the country in recent weeks and months, or that the two groups are working together.

Workers continued to dig through the rubble of the Canal Hotel in search of about 20 persons still missing and feared buried in the ruins of the three-story building that has housed U.N. operations for more than a decade.

One body was recovered yesterday, bringing the death toll to at least 21, including at least two Americans and Sergio Vieira de Mello, the top U.N. official in Baghdad.

A prominent politician and member of Iraq’s U.S.-picked Governing Council said the United States had had hints that a terrorist strike like the one against the U.N. headquarters was likely.

Ahmed Chalabi, favored by some in the Pentagon to lead postwar Iraq, said he and other Iraqi politicians learned on Aug. 14 that there had been a meeting between “some of the former regime” and “extremists” during which they discussed “a large-scale act” in Baghdad against “a soft target” such as an Iraqi political group or the United Nations.

“They specifically said that this attack will take place using a truck to be detonated either through a suicide mechanism or an electronic detonation,” he told reporters. “This report we shared” with the Americans, he added.

FBI investigators said a flatbed truck, not a cement truck as earlier reported, had been filled with old munitions from Saddam’s arsenal, including mortar rounds, artillery shells, hand grenades and a giant 500-pound bomb.

The explosives had been piled without “any great degree of sophistication or expertise” onto the back of a Soviet-made military truck, Special Agent Thomas Fuentes told the Associated Press.

“These munitions were probably in the possession of Iraqi military during Saddam’s regime,” Mr. Fuentes was quoted as saying. “Someone with access to a large military cache put them on a truck and drove it down an open street.”

Many Iraqi munitions were looted from military bases and warehouses immediately after the collapse of Saddam’s rule in early April.

Iraqi officials privately voiced anger over what they called the coalition’s inability to provide security. Iraqi politicians — even those handpicked by Americans — have for weeks demanded that coalition troops do more to police the country.

Though fatal attacks against heavily armed U.S. soldiers have declined, the number of strikes against Iraq’s oil, water and electricity infrastructure have increased. An attack against the lightly defended Jordanian Embassy on Aug. 7 left 11 persons dead.

But Coalition Provisional Authority spokesman Charles Heatly said it was unfair to relate the U.N. truck bombing to the general security situation in Iraq.

“I really don’t think that the terrorist attack we saw yesterday is a reflection of a marked deterioration of the security situation,” he said. “Terrorists strike around the world, with no respect for borders, no respect for geography, and no respect for security measures.”

L. Paul Bremer III, the chief U.S. administrator for Iraq, suggested in televised interviews that international terrorists, rather than the pro-Saddam loyalists presumed responsible for most attacks on U.S. forces, were the main culprits in the truck bombing.

“We have clear indications of quite a number of terrorists from the terrorist group Ansar al-Islam, a group that has had connection with al Qaeda through the years,” he said.

Based along the Iran-Iraq border in the mountains of Kurdish northern Iraq, Ansar al-Islam terrorized local residents until U.S. cruise missiles dislodged them from their bases in the early days of the war.

A third of the group’s 1,000 al Qaeda-linked fighters were killed, a third of the less committed turned themselves in or were captured, and the remaining slipped into the snowy mountains. As early as mid-June, Kurds warned that the group had become active again.

In Baghdad, residents roundly condemned the attack on the United Nations, which during years of sanctions had been a lifeline for ordinary citizens dependent on its food rations.

Many of its agencies had recently reopened public works programs aimed at giving jobs to the poorest Iraqis. Carrying shovels and pickaxes and wearing bandanas as protection from the midday sun, one group renovated a dilapidated fountain in a Baghdad park as part of a U.N. Development Program initiative.

“The $3 a day I get isn’t a lot, but it’s better than what I made under Saddam,” said Wafsi Muhammad, a worker. “I hope the program doesn’t end.”

Shell-shocked U.N. staffers were ordered to remain in their hotels and dormitories throughout the city yesterday. At one hotel, a staffer nursing cuts and scrapes to his hands and face said he was still in a state of shock.

“I’m just afraid of looking at the death list, because I’m afraid of finding a name of a person from my team,” he said. “I don’t know what happened to him after the explosion.”

Geoffrey Keele, a Saskatchewan native and a high-level official at UNICEF, mourned Christopher Klein-Beekman, a Canadian coordinator for the agency who was killed in the blast.

“Chris was actually my best friend in the office,” he said. “He joined about a month before I did. We just got along very well. He was really the driving force behind some of the great things UNICEF did.”

Another victim, American Arthur C. Helton of the Council on Foreign Relations, had been visiting Mr. Vieira de Mello at the time of the blast. He was described by a tearful friend as a meticulous, soft-spoken and compassionate “champion of refugees.”

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said two Americans, including Mr. Helton, had been killed in the blast, and that another was feared dead.

“There may be more,” he said. “The situation on the ground continues to be fluid.”

Mr. Boucher also said the United States was consulting with other governments on the best way to continue support for the international community in Iraq.

“We are coordinating with the U.N. and other organizations to try and ensure that people can operate,” he told reporters.

Sharon Behn contributed to this report in Washington.

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