- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 25, 2005

BAGHDAD — Terrorists detonated three huge suicide bombs outside hotels frequented by journalists and foreign contractors yesterday, killing more than a dozen people in what appeared to be a coordinated attack on Westerners.

Initial reports said all of the dead were security forces and Iraqi passers-by, with only minor injuries to patrons in the Palestine and two other hotels facing Firdous Square. Dazed guests at the Palestine, many of them television journalists, photographed one another huddled in the hallways amid clouds of dust after the blasts.

U.S. forces rushed to the scene amid wailing police and ambulance sirens and quickly sealed off the area around the square — the site where Iraqis tore down an enormous statue of Saddam Hussein in the final hours of the 2003 war.

U.S. and Iraqi authorities gave conflicting casualty tolls, with death counts ranging from 15 to 20 and twice that many reported as injured. The attacks emphatically ended a period of relative quiet since the constitutional referendum on Oct. 15.

The largest explosion tore away parts of the Palestine Hotel, which together with the Sheraton Hotel sits some 40 yards from the road. It is protected by large concrete barriers.

The Palestine is favored by TV crews from the Associated Press, Fox News and the Arabic-language U.S.-funded Al-Hurra television, among others. Contractors employed by Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown and Root often stay at the Sheraton.

Another bomb exploded near the al-Sadeer Hotel, which sits across the square and is popular with expatriate police advisers and private security contractors. The al-Sadeer has been attacked several times.

“We had just got back inside the compound” when the bombs went off, said one contractor who stays at the al-Sadeer. “It broke out a bunch of windows ,and two locals got hurt.”

The contractor said a vehicle “was driving through to the Ministry of Agriculture building when the building guards shot at it and it detonated.” The ministry is next door to the al-Sadeer.

The first bomb outside the Palestine Hotel breached the concrete barrier, creating a gap, witnesses said. The third and final blast was caused by an explosives-laden cement-mixer truck that plowed through the hole in the barrier before detonating.

The blast sent clouds of smoke and debris high into the air and shook buildings up to a mile away.

Television networks aired scenes of confused journalists in flak jackets rushing through smoke-filled corridors of the Palestine Hotel and stepping over broken glass. One video focused on a table with a plate of fruit that stood incongruously untouched amid the wreckage.

Iraq’s national security adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie said he thought the bombs were part of an unsuccessful scheme to storm the Palestine and Sheraton hotels and take hostages.

U.S. intelligence has been warning for at least six months that reporters are prime targets for hostage takers, but this would be the first time a bomb attack was used in a kidnapping attempt. There were conflicting reports that rockets were fired before the bomb blasts.

The security adviser put the number of injured at 40 or more, while Deputy Interior Minister Hussein Kamal was quoted as saying the dead included four or five Iraqi police.

Mr. al-Rubaie, interviewed by CNN, said the terrorists suffered a “demoralizing blow” when large numbers of Iraqis turned out for the Oct. 15 referendum on a new constitution, and that yesterday’s attacks were an attempt by the insurgents to regain the upper hand.

However, there was still uncertainty about the outcome of the referendum yesterday after authorities announced that it had been rejected by a two-thirds majority in two Sunni-majority provinces — Salahadeen and Anbar.

Three of the four provinces that still have not delivered final results are expected to approve the constitution, but there remains some uncertainly about Nineveh, an ethnically mixed province that includes Mosul.

A two-thirds “no” vote in any three provinces would defeat the document and force the parties to renegotiate it from scratch.

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