BAGHDAD (AP) – Three massive vehicle bombs exploded yesterday near the Palestine Hotel, home to many Western journalists, killing at least 20 people. Dramatic TV pictures showed one of the bombers driving a cement truck through the concrete blast walls that guard the hotel, then blowing up his vehicle.

Iraq’s national security adviser, Mouwafak al-Rubaie, said the attack – which appeared well-planned – was a “very clear” effort to take over the hotel and seize journalists as hostages.

One of the car bombs exploded near the police position on the northeast side of Firdous Square, where a statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled in April 2003 shortly after the fall of Baghdad, and more than 100 yards east of the hotel. Security officials said a third bomb struck the area around the same time. All three were believed to be suicide attacks.

“Three cars came from three different roads in succession to create security breaches for terrorists,” al-Rubaie told The Associated Press in a telephone interview, adding that they were armed with rocket-propelled grenades and light arms.

“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.”

The U.S. military said no U.S. troops were injured. It counted 10 dead Iraqis.

A U.S. Bradley Fighting Vehicle parked inside the compound was destroyed in the blast. No one was inside at the time.

The security adviser said at least 40 people were injured, most of them passers-by. Another official, Deputy Interior Minister Hussein Kamal, said four or five Iraqi police were among the dead.

APTN footage showed that one of three vehicle bombers had penetrated the concrete blast walls surrounding the hotel compound before exploding.

The cement mixer exploded in a huge ball of flame and a cloud of smoke.

Iraqi security officials said the blasts occurred two minutes apart, not long before Muslims marking the Islamic holy month of Ramadan were preparing to break their daylong fast. Shortly before the explosion, a truck came under fire nearby, according to APTN.

The attacks caused heavy damage to the south side of the 18-story Palestine Hotel, forcing journalists, including those from AP, Fox News and the U.S. government-funded Alhurra TV station to take refuge in the corridor. Fox and Alhurra said their employees were safe.

An AP photographer at a checkpoint at the northwest corner of the hotel said at least three photographers from other media outside the hotel were injured and taken away by ambulance. Two AP employees and three other journalists inside the hotel suffered minor injuries.

The AP counted six wounded inside the hotel, which was last hit in an insurgent rocket attack on Oct. 7, 2004.

Inside the hotel, light fixtures were blown out, pictures were blasted off the walls and windows were shattered.

Moments before the second blast, journalists, photographers and technicians were walking up and down hazy corridors in a state of confusion, urging each other to remain calm, put on flak jackets, and to stay away from windows. Thicker clouds of smoke filled the far end of one hallway, with many people coughing and waving their hands.

The second explosion shook the building momentarily. Confusion and panic again set in, with those inside debating whether to exit, but all eventually deciding to stay in the corridor and sit propped against walls, most in flak jackets. Sounds resembling gunshots could be heard outside.

Strips of floorboards were strewn about and air vents were blown in.

Capt. Patricia Brewer, a U.S. military spokeswoman in Baghdad, said they could hear the blasts from their headquarters. A Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Col. Barry Venable, said the U.S. military sent in a quick reaction force to the site to assist the police.

Elsewhere in Baghdad, suspected insurgents opened fire at two civilian cars, killing three municipal workers and a passer-by, said police Capt. Talib Thamir amid a surge of violence over the last two days that has killed dozens.

The toll among American service members killed in the Iraq war also neared 2,000 dead, with the announcement of a Marine killed Sunday during fighting in western Iraq.

The exploding cement truck – caught in APTN footage – blew a hole in a 12-foot concrete wall that separates the hotel from the square. U.S. soldiers maintain a presence inside the five-acre hotel compound, which includes the Sheraton.

 

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