BAGHDAD, Iraq—A thunderous car bomb destroyed a five-story Baghdad hotel and some nearby homes Wednesday, killing at least 28 people—most of them Iraqis or visiting Arabs—and confirming a new focus by terrorists on the most vulnerable civilian targets.
The blast, which could be felt and heard several miles away, left a 10-foot-deep crater and a pile of flaming rubble on the site of what was the Mount Lebanon Hotel in the city's ethnically mixed Karrada district.
A U.S. military spokesman said the explosion was caused by a 1,000-pound car bomb, and witnesses said at least two homes were completely destroyed.
Video footage shot immediately after the explosion showed bodies being pulled from the wreckage. The military said 41 people had been wounded.
Haidar Assad said he was sitting in the lobby of a neighboring hotel when the bomb went off.
"It was a big explosion," he said. "We just went down on the floor. Glass flew everywhere."
He then ran toward the burning hotel, where he saw "a lot of bodies, a lot of injured people."
The bombing came after a series of execution-style killings of civilians in recent days, including four Christian aid workers in Mosul and two women who did laundry for U.S. troops in Basra.
"The target is democracy in Iraq," Governing Council member Mowaffak al Rubaie said on CNN. "The aim is to make it an ungovernable state."
A military spokesman at the scene said there were 15 local staff members working at the hotel and 10 guests, some of whom were Jordanian, Lebanese, Egyptian and British.
Witnesses said the hotel at one time housed employees of Orascom, an Egyptian telecommunications company that owns a stake in Iraqna, the new Iraqi mobile phone provider.
But despite the presence of foreigners, the bombing of a modest, unprotected hotel surrounded by Iraqi homes seemed to mark a new level of randomness in the terrorist bombers' tactics.
The first major car bombing in Iraq hit the Jordanian Embassy last August, followed soon after by the devastating attack against U.N. headquarters. Bombers also hit a Shiite mosque in Najaf last year and struck at Shiite religious ceremonies two weeks ago. They also have targeted Iraqi police stations and the International Red Cross.
The bombing of a small hotel, by contrast, lacks the political implications of the earlier attacks and seems to indicate that the insurgents are seeking to hit anything they can to sow panic and instability. It's also possible that the car bomb went off prematurely, having been meant for another target.
Iraqis at the scene said they believed a missile or a mortar shell caused the damage, but that's a common and mistaken refrain after such bombings. Col. Ralph Baker, commander of 1st Armored Division's Second Brigade, said investigators found artillery shells in the rubble, but they believe they were packed into the bomb to create shrapnel and cause maximum damage.
Baker said Iraqi police and ambulances "were on the scene immediately and were instrumental in saving many lives." He said a number of survivors had been pulled from the rubble.
In the hours after the bomb exploded, Iraqis gathered outside a perimeter set up by U.S. troops around the smoking crater to seek information about loved ones.
"My brother, my brother—just tell me whether he's dead or alive," one man yelled to soldiers.
Ambulances and police cars moved though the crowds of onlookers. Soldiers screamed at the crowds to move back. At one point an angry young machine gunner swore and pointed his large caliber weapon at group of Iraqis.
Neighbors said the Mount Lebanon Hotel wasn't surrounded by large concrete barriers, as are most of the Baghdad hotels frequented by Western journalists, contractors and nongovernmental organizations.
"They can't get to the coalition forces because they are behind concrete walls, and they are very well secured," al Rubaie said. "They can't get even to the Iraqi policemen because they are now getting better and better equipped. They've gone to soft targets—an unguarded, unsecured, unprotected hotel."
The Karrada neighborhood, where the blast occurred, is home to one of Baghdad's main shopping thoroughfares. By day, its sidewalks are crammed with satellite dishes, electronic and kitchen appliances, and it has become a symbol of Iraq's postwar, post-sanctions consumer boom.
At the White House, spokesman Scott McClellan offered prayers for the victims. "Democracy is taking root in Iraq and there is no turning back," he said. "This is a time of testing, but the terrorists will not prevail."
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20040317 USIRAQ BLAST