BAGHDAD, Iraq—A massive truck bomb exploded Thursday outside the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad, killing 16 people and injuring more than 60, and a fresh round of attacks by Iraqi insurgents took the lives of at least two U.S. soldiers and wounded four more.
The new attacks broke a four-day lull in which no U.S. soldiers were killed and dashed hopes that violence against American GI's was on the decline, while the embassy bombing appeared to signal a dangerous new phase of the war in which terrorists are targeting innocent civilians.
U.S. military officials confirmed that at least eight people died in the blast, including at least five Iraqi policemen. Hospital authorities reported that 16 people died and 64 were wounded. Most were passers-by and nearby residents.
No one took responsibility for the bombing.
"We have seen vehicle-borne devices like this before," Sanchez said. "What this tells us is that we have some professional terrorists operating here in the country. . . . (But) I'm not sure I would call this a trend at this point."
U.S. officials have expressed increasing concern in recent weeks about foreign extremists joining in the Iraqi insurgency or others who may be operating independently. Since the war began, 198 American service members have been killed in action; 61 of them have died in hostile fire since President Bush declared major combat operations over May 1.
Coalition officials have voiced particular concern over the activities of Ansar al Islam, an al-Qaida-linked group that Saddam allowed to operate in northern Iraq before the war. U.S. military officials believed that most Ansar members were killed at the beginning of the war, when American airstrikes targeted their camps. However, L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. civilian administrator for Iraq, said at a news conference last week that Ansar appeared to be regrouping in several Iraqi cities, including Baghdad.
The latest surge in violence began around 11 p.m. Wednesday, when Iraqi guerrillas killed one American soldier and wounded two others in a firefight in the al Rashid district of Baghdad. One of the wounded soldiers later died, military officials said.
Witnesses said a bomb hidden in a truck or bus exploded outside the Jordanian embassy around 10:30 a.m. Thursday, toppling a courtyard wall in the compound and destroying at least eight cars parked nearby. The blast was powerful enough to pitch one car onto the roof of a home 150 feet from the embassy.
Wreckage stretched for hundreds of yards. Bystanders walked over shattered windows, car parts and shreds of clothing. Iraqi medical workers pulled people out of the crowd, urging them to give blood for the victims.
Dozens of U.S. troops cordoned off the scene within an hour, and Iraqi policemen with AK-47s helped comb the area for clues.
American Lt. Col. Eric Nantz said it was unclear whether the explosive was planted by a suicide bomber or detonated from a distance. Nantz is commander of the 1st Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, from Fort Bragg, N.C.
Iraq's U.S.-appointed Governing Council issued a statement offering condolences to the victims and hinting that it thinks members of the former regime may be to blame.
"As of now, we don't know who is responsible for the explosion at the Jordanian Embassy, in which many innocent people died," said the statement, which was in Arabic. "This time, attacks reached a country that has a good relationship with Iraq, and the reason for the crime is to make building relationships with Iraq's neighbors more difficult."
In Washington, Secretary of State Colin Powell said the bombing "reminds us once again that we all must come together, the civilized world must come together, to defeat this scourge of terrorism in whatever manner it manifests itself." Powell said he called Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher to express his regrets.
Many Iraqis have been angry with Jordan since its government supported the U.S.-led coalition during the war. Last week, Jordan's King Abdullah granted asylum to two of Saddam's daughters.
After the explosion Thursday, a throng of Iraqis ran into the embassy, tore down a Jordanian flag and stomped on photos of the king and his late father, King Hussein.
Several Iraqis at the scene were convinced the building was hit by missiles. Some even suggested that American helicopters were to blame. Sanchez and other military officials denied that claim.
Other Iraqis said there was no excuse for an attack on civilians.
"We are Iraqi people and we are against this terrorist action," said Mohamed al Hillawi, 40, whose 5-year-old daughter was injured in the blast. "The people that do this say they are Iraqis, yet they do this terrorist action. They are not true Iraqis."
Most victims were taken to the Children's and Teaching Hospital, a quarter-mile from the embassy. Zuhair Karim, the resident physician, said 15 people were dead on arrival and another died later. The hospital also received 48 people who were wounded. Ali Khalid, a surgeon at Yarmuk Hospital in Baghdad, said his staff treated 16 people who had been injured in the blast.
Just behind the embassy compound, 10 members of the Saadi family were celebrating the birth of a child when a shock wave from the explosion ripped through their three-story home, shattering all the windows and overturning furniture. Four members of the family were injured, including a 2-year-old boy.
"Thank God no one was killed, but who will pay for this?" asked Raghad Saadi, gesturing to the devastation throughout her home. "Will it be Saddam? Will it be the Americans? Probably no one."
Less than four hours after the bombing, assailants fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a Humvee, setting off a 30-minute gun battle in a busy commercial district in Baghdad where American soldiers frequent electronics stores and supermarkets. Three U.S. soldiers were wounded. Witnesses said least two Iraqis were killed.
Several Iraqis said American soldiers were shooting wildly at the scene. Firaz Kadim, 25, said he ran to hide from the gunfire when his friend fell down beside him, shot in the head. He did not know if he survived.
As bullets flew, two soldiers crouched behind an orange Volkswagen Beetle, but couldn't decide where to return fire.
"Where are they? Where are they?" one soldier asked, pointing his rifle toward rooftops and balconies. "We can't tell where it's coming from."
The other soldier's radio crackled with commands, and he shouted, "Take cover! Now!"
Hamid Abid Hamed, 33, huddled with other shaken Iraqi workers in a leather factory across the street from the crumpled, charred remains of the Humvee. Hamed said he saw a man fire the grenade, drop the weapon and run into an office building with two other men. Another witness said he thought the grenade was fired from inside the building. U.S. troops fired at the suspects. Four armored vehicles fired into the building, creating black plumes of smoke as civilian workers ran out with their hands raised.
Small explosions shook the windows of several shops for 20 minutes. Helicopters hovered, and a personnel carrier left the scene with an injured soldier in the back.
In other developments in Iraq, Sanchez said he intended to act with more restraint—"precision" was the word he used—in ordering raids against Iraqi homes suspected of harboring operatives of Saddam's Baath Party or opposition fighters.
It is widely believed that the hundreds of raids that American forces have carried out over the last few months have angered many people.
"I think we've come to a point in time where we need to be more precise and yet remain aggressive in our raids, but be able to ensure that we're discriminate in our application of power to ensure that we do not alienate innocent Iraqis," Sanchez said.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20030807 Baghdad bomb