BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – A “science project” of a rocket launcher forced the U.S. occupation authority to retreat from its main hotel yesterday, after a barrage by the Iraqi resistance that killed an American colonel, wounded 18 other people and sent scores of U.S. officials scurrying for safety, including the visiting deputy defense secretary.
Paul Wolfowitz, the shaken-looking but unhurt Pentagon deputy, said the strike against the Al Rasheed Hotel, from nearly point-blank range, “will not deter us from completing our mission” in Iraq.
But the bold blow at the heart of the U.S. presence here clearly rattled U.S. confidence that it is defeating Iraq’s shadowy insurgents. “We’ll have to get the security situation under control,” Secretary of State Colin Powell told NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He said the Bush administration knew postwar security would be a challenge, but “we didn’t expect it would be quite this intense this long.”
The assault was likely planned over at least the past two months, a top U.S. commander said, as the insurgents put together the improvised rocket launcher and figured out how to wheel it into the park just across the street from the hotel.
The effect of the 6:10 a.m. volley of rockets was dramatic: U.S. officials and officers fled from the Al Rasheed, some still in pajamas or shorts to a nearby convention center. The concrete western face of the 18-story building was pockmarked with a half-dozen or more blast holes, and shattered windows in at least two dozen rooms.
The modern, 462-room Al-Rasheed, housing civilian officials of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority and U.S. military personnel, is a symbol of the occupation. The assault pointed up the vulnerability of even heavily guarded U.S. facilities in Iraq, where American forces sustain an average of 26 lower-profile attacks daily, and where Wolfowitz had come to assess ways to defeat the stubborn 6-month-old insurgency.
More than 15 hours after the rocket fire and after U.S. security officials flooded the neighborhood, two explosions went off in the same downtown area. An Iraqi policeman said an assailant fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a U.S. convoy next to the al-Mansour Hotel, about a mile away from the Al Rasheed. He said there were no casualties.
A day earlier, a rocket-propelled grenade had forced down a U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter north of Baghdad, the 4th Infantry Division confirmed yesterday. The incident occurred just hours after Wolfowitz left that area on the second day of his three-day visit. One soldier was injured.
The U.S. command said the wounded included seven American civilians, four U.S. military personnel and five non-U.S. civilians working for the coalition. Two Iraqi security guards also were hurt. The command did not immediately identify the dead American, but Wolfowitz said he was a U.S. colonel.
A senior FBI official said the bureau, the Defense Department, the State Department and Iraqi police were all involved in the investigation. Wolfowitz and his aides were very close to the area of the hotel that was struck, but there was no indication the attack was directed at Wolfowitz, the Pentagon said.
Brig. Gen. Martin Dempsey of the 1st Armored Division said he believed the insurgents timed the attack with the lifting this weekend of an overnight curfew in Baghdad and the reopening of a main city bridge.
“Any time we demonstrate a return to normalcy, there are those who will push back at that,” said Dempsey, who is responsible for security in Baghdad.
Iraqi police said the attacker or attackers, in a white Chevrolet pickup, boldly drove to the edge of the city’s main Zawra Park and Zoo, just 400 yards from the hotel, towing what looked like a portable, two-wheeled generator.