BAGHDAD—Iraqi guerillas launched a bold and violent offensive Sunday against the U.S. led coalition, striking first with a rocket attack on a prominent hotel in a supposedly secure zone that houses American and coalition officials, then continuing with more rocket attacks well into the night.
Military officials said first attack occurred at 6:08 a.m. Sunday when a barrage of more than two dozen rockets were fired from about 400 meters away at the Al Rasheed hotel. Eight to 10 rockets hit the hotel, killing an American colonel and wounding 15 other people.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who wrapping up a three-day visit to assess how to end the dogged insurgency that continues to bedevil U.S.-led troops six months after major combat ended, was staying on the 12th floor of the hotel at the time, but was unhurt. A senior American officer said he did not believe that Wolfowitz was the target of the attack.
Just before 9 p.m. Sunday, three large explosions, which sounded they had been caused by mortar rounds or more rockets again rocked the Iraqi capital, sending a shudder through buildings several miles away.
A military spokesman confirmed that two of the explosions had taken place inside the so-called Green Zone, which houses the hotel and Saddam's former Republican Palace, now the coalition headquarters. But the spokesman said he had no additional information, including whether there were any casualties.
A series of five more explosions took place just after 10 p.m., but a military spokeswoman said she could provide no information on those incidents.
The attacks, which took place on the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, appeared to confirm predictions by some Iraqis and western observers that a violent new chapter in Iraq's guerilla war had been inaugurated by insurgents.
The attacks unnerved many Baghdad residents, soldiers and coalition officials, still recovering from a rocket strike last month on the hotel and a series of suicide bombings in recent weeks. And the incidents, which took place on the most secure compound in Iraq, reinforced the notion that nowhere in Iraq, not even the most heavily guarded military facility is safe from attack.
Off-duty Rasheed Hotel worker Abdul Satar Abdul Jabar, 48, woke early Sunday morning to the sound of rockets crashing near his home in a quiet neighborhood in the shadow of the highest profile hotel here for senior coalition officials and visiting dignitaries.
"This is the first day of Ramadan for me but I was forced to eat and drink because I was so shocked," said a visibly shaken Jabar, as he sipped water outside the modest house he shares with his wife and six children.
Jabar thought the 6:10 a.m. explosion was a terrorist attack on the ministers of education and health, both of whom live nearby.
Brig. Gen. Martin Dempsey, commander of the 1st Armored Division which has responsibility for Baghdad said the hotel attack appeared to have taken at least a couple of months to plan and was evidently well rehearsed.
"No doubt it required some reconnaissance, some rehearsal," Dempsey said, at a news conference Sunday night. "A couple of months would be my estimate."
Appearing before reporters in an open-neck shirt, a composed but unshaven Wolfowitz expressed "profound sympathy" for the victims and said the attack would not deter coalition forces in their mission.
"The criminals who are trying to destabilize this country abused and tortured Iraq for 35 years and we have ended that mass oppression. There are few who refuse to accept the reality for a new and free Iraq. We will be unrelenting in our pursuit of them," Wolfowitz said.
Speaking later at a military hospital where he visited five people critically injured in the attack, Wolfowitz described the wounded as one British civilian, and four Americans—three civilians and one soldier.
Those who carried out the attack are "a small number of bitter-enders who think they can somehow take this country backwards by destabilizing it, by scaring us away," he said. "They're not going to scare us away, we're not giving up on this job. We're going to finish this job."
A senior military officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said seven of the wounded were U.S. civilians, four were U.S. military, and the four others were Italian, Czech, Nepalese and Indian.
The American colonel is one of the highest-ranking military officers killed in Iraq to date and the latest of 109 U.S. soldiers who have died in combat since May 1 when President Bush declared that major operations were over.
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The attack comes as the U.S. and its coalition partners are desperate for international aid to rebuild Iraq and for more soldiers to help stabilize the country. Donor countries meeting in Madrid on Friday pledged $13 billion, but the amount is far short of the $56 billion needed. Some 30 nations other than the United States and Britain have sent troops, but most contributions have been relatively modest.
The incident also cast a dark shadow over two recent events that were designed to show some return of normalcy in Iraq, the lifting of the nightly curfew and the reopening of the 14th of July bridge, closed for security reasons since Baghdad fell to U.S. troops last April.
But speaking on ABC's "This Week" with George Stephanopoulos, L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator for Iraq, said he did not believe that the attack was a sign that security was getting worse.
"We certainly had a bad day and as I have stressed all along we are going to have good days and bad days," he added. But he did acknowledge that strikes against U.S. troops, which have recently spiked at 35 in one day—nearly triple the rate of three months ago—were getting more deadly.
"There is evidence that the terrorist groups are getting better organized and they are using now more sophisticated approaches, in particular the use of these improvised explosive devices alongside our convoys," said Bremer. "That is a serious problem and it is one that we will have to continue to get at."
Sir Jeremy Greenstock, Britain's special representative to Iraq, said three people were seriously hurt including Jacob Nell, a British Treasury official. Greenstock offered condolences and described the attack as a "callous attempt to slow down the coalition's work for peace and democracy."
He pledged to continue working to hand over power to the Iraqis "as soon as that can be done in conditions in which they can build a secure and prosperous country."
The attacks follow a Sept. 27 incident in which three rockets were fired at the hotel. There were no injuries. Last week, six rockets were fired into the Green Zone, two of them landing within 500 yards of the palace, but no one was killed or injured.
Sunday's attackers drove a white Chevrolet GMC and towed a blue trailer that appeared to be an air compressor but instead disguised a rocket launcher. After a brief gun battle, the suspects unhooked the trailer, sped off in the GMC and the rockets were launched shortly afterward.
The rockets left at least eight holes mostly on the fifth and eighth floors of the 18-story hotel. One room on the 11th floor appeared badly destroyed and threw several guests from their beds. Witnesses at the scene said they saw the injured taken away on stretchers. Dozens of windows were shattered by the attack.
Dempsey said the rockets, which he described as 68mm and 85mm, were fired from an improvised rocket launcher at a distance of 400 yards away. Those calibers were common in the arsenal of Saddam's former army, mostly of Soviet and Eastern-bloc origin.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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