BAGHDAD, Iraq—Guerrillas fired at least three explosive rounds Saturday at the U.S-led coalition's headquarters compound in Baghdad, and one of them struck the Rashid Hotel inside the base, where many coalition officials and soldiers live.
The attack on the most secure coalition base in Iraq came the morning after U.S soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division shot and killed two Iraqis and wounded two more in a van that was speeding towards a vehicle checkpoint in the town of Fallujah, 35 miles west of the capital, military officials said. The soldiers opened fire after the Iraqis shot at them, said Lt. Col. George Krivo, a U.S. military spokesman.
Fallujah is in the Sunni Muslim heartland that runs north and west of the capital, where U.S. soldiers have clashed repeatedly with guerrillas and local residents in recent months, and where support for ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein remains strong.
The attack on the Hotel Rashid, one of the most brazen on the U.S. headquarters since President Bush declared major combat over five months ago, caused minor damage to the 14th floor of the structure, but there were no injuries or deaths, said Charles Heatley, a spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority, which administers Iraq.
The compound, which stretches for several miles along the Tigris River in downtown Baghdad, encircles the Rashid Hotel, the Baghdad Convention Center, the coalition press office and Saddam's former Republican Palace. L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. civil administrator and Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top coalition commander, live and work in the palace along with hundreds of coalition civilians and soldiers. Thousands of U.S. soldiers are billeted throughout the complex.
Staff Sgt. Jose Ojeda, 38, of the Florida National Guard, said he was on his way to breakfast at the hotel when the first round hit. He ducked behind a nearby berm, thinking he was coming under fire.
I'd just come through the first checkpoint there, I said hello to the guys, when all of the sudden the first one hit," said Ojeda, in civilian life an automotive technician in Orlando, Fla. "I got down behind the berm, looking for overhead cover. When the second one hit, my instinct told me to turn around and get the hell out of there."
Military officials at first said they believed the hotel came under mortar attack, but later said the device was unknown. Rocket-propelled grenades have been the weapons of choice for anti-coalition guerrillas. But recent weeks have seen increasing use of mortars and better accuracy in their use, which suggests that guerrillas have former Iraqi military personnel in their ranks or are receiving training from outside experts.
The latest attack came as coalition officials sought to highlight progress in Iraq. Andy Bearpark, the coalition's director of operations, told reporters in Baghdad that the coalition is now "most firmly in phase two" of Iraq's reconstruction. Though he did not give a specific figure, Bearpark said tens of millions of dollars have been spent on emergency repairs and that billions more are expected to be spent in coming months.
President Bush has asked Congress to approve $20 billion in reconstruction money for Iraq for 2004, and a donor's conference is scheduled late next month in Madrid, Spain for additional international funds.
The U.S. firm Bechtel was issued a controversial $680 million, no-bid contract last spring to oversee post-war reconstruction work, and was recently issued an additional $350 million contract. Coalition officials approved a project list in July, and about half of the $680 million in contracts has already been tendered, with 47 percent of the work going to local companies, Bearpark said.
Bearpark said reconstruction work would help jumpstart Iraq's moribund economy, in which unemployment is estimated at 60 percent, but that reconstruction jobs would disappear as the country is rebuilt. The key to economic development, he said, is for Iraq to develop a strong medium- and small-business sector as it shifts from a socialist economy, stagnant for years, to a capitalist one. Last Sunday, Iraq's new finance minister, Kamel Gailani, announced a sweeping package of reforms to open Iraq to substantial foreign investment for the first time in decades.
Heatley said millions of children across Iraq would return to newly refurbished schools and new textbooks stripped of any references to Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party, which ruled Iraq for 35 years. Coalition soldiers have rehabilitated 1,000 schools around the county, Heatley said.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ