Monday, October 27, 2003

BAGHDAD — Insurgents fired eight to 10 rockets into Al Rasheed Hotel — home to leading coalition and Iraqi Governing Council officials — shortly after dawn yesterday, killing an American colonel and driving dozens of pajama-clad officials into the street.

At least 17 persons were injured in the attack, which was carried out with a homemade rocket launcher described by one U.S. officer as a “science project in a garage.” Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz escaped injury when a rocket struck the floor below his.

Danger will persist in Iraq “as long as there are criminals out there staging hit-and-run attacks,” a shaken but determined-looking Mr. Wolfowitz told reporters shortly afterward. He said U.S. authorities “will be unrelenting” in pursuit of the attackers, whom he described as representing “a few who refuse to accept the reality of a new and free Iraq.”

At least two more explosions shook the downtown area last night around the hotel, where offices of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority are centered, though no casualties were reported. The Associated Press quoted an unnamed coalition official as saying that the 462-room hotel had been ordered evacuated indefinitely.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, interviewed yesterday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” said U.S. authorities were working hard to control a dangerous situation.

“We are still in the conflict, and I don’t think the president ever sought to minimize that,” Mr. Powell said.

“We are in this insurgency situation where people strike and run, and it’s a much more difficult security environment,” he said. “We did not expect this would be quite this intense for so long.”

U.S. military police who investigated the morning attack said four men in either a white car or a pickup had driven into a park near the hotel towing a blue trailer of a type often used to haul electrical generators. Such generators are commonly used by the hotel because of frequent blackouts.

But when two security guards approached, the men dropped a side panel on the trailer and drove away. Moments later, the rockets fired into the hotel, apparently launched by a timing device. The guards were injured.

A military police officer who arrived on the scene soon afterward said 11 more rockets remained unfired in the launcher. A bomb squad later determined that the trailer had been booby-trapped with 220 pounds of explosives strapped to the wheel wells.

A police report shown to The Washington Times indicated that the explosives were of a type used extensively by the now-defunct Iraqi army.

“That decision [to call in a bomb squad] saved my life,” said one military police officer. “The amateurs are gone. We’re now dealing with the real professionals.”

Brig. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, commander of the 1st Armored Division that patrols Baghdad, was more skeptical about the capabilities of the attackers.

“It’s a science project in a garage with a welder and a battery and a handful of wires,” he told reporters last night.

“Now don’t get me wrong. It’s just as dangerous as something that’s manufactured by one of the great corporations in the U.S. But I don’t see any sophistication,” he said.

The general also noted that the attack occurred shortly after coalition authorities had reopened a major Tigris River bridge and announced an easing of the night curfew for the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which began last night.

The attackers appeared to be trying to undermine any advances toward a return to normal conditions, he said.

“I’m really convinced that the attack was linked to a series of events that lead to normalcy,” Gen. Dempsey said, suggesting that the insurgents are likely to use the cover of Ramadan to plan or execute more attacks.

One Iraqi who works with the newly reconstituted police force accused coalition authorities of neglecting security.

“This park had only eight guards, and they were not even armed. At night, they stay huddled together and patrol as a group rather than one by one,” said the Iraqi, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

One of the guards at the site said he was leaving his shift and putting on his civilian clothes when the attackers drove up, according to the official Iraqi police report. Another guard said he was too far away to do anything.

On Saturday, a rocket-propelled grenade downed a U.S. Black Hawk helicopter near Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, wounding one soldier. The attack occurred just hours after Mr. Wolfowitz had flown out of Tikrit in a helicopter.

Mr. Wolfowitz pressed on with some elements of his schedule but dropped others yesterday before his planned departure.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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