BAGHDAD – Nearly a dozen mortars or rockets exploded inside the fortified Green Zone at about 10 a.m. Thursday, in what’s become a near-daily demonstration of the limitations of the U.S.-led security crackdown and the militants’ resolve to rain terror on even the most protected area of Baghdad.
Scores of civilians and military personnel scurried for cover inside box-like concrete bunkers stationed near the Green Zone’s checkpoints. There were no casualties.
At least one shell or rocket reportedly struck a parking lot used by Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and his security detail.
U.S. officials declined to say where the explosions struck or if they were mortars or rockets. Smoke plumes visible for miles rose from the compound, while U.S. military helicopters chopped the sky in an apparent effort to locate firing positions.
McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Laith Hammoudi was at a checkpoint in line to enter the Green Zone when air-warning sirens erupted. Security guards ordered people into bunkers.
He heard an Iraqi civilian asked a guard “Is it mortar attack?” The guard said, “No, it’s rockets.” Several members of the Iraqi Parliament were huddled in his bunker, Hammoudi said. Five minutes later, guards allowed people back to their cars.
Rocket and mortar fire is not new to the Green Zone, or International Zone, as U.S. and Iraqi officials call it. But the frequency of attacks is. Despite more troops and security measures, the rockets and mortars keep falling on what’s become Baghdad’s biggest target.
Almost everyday this week, mortars and rockets have slammed into this 3.5 square-mile fortress in central Baghdad, home to Iraqi government offices and the U.S. and British embassies. About 1,000 U.S. State Department staffers work and live in the Green Zone.
McClatchy Newspapers has reported that many of the U.S. personnel, housed in trailers or containerized housing units there, worry for their safety, yet are afraid to leave for fear of derailing their careers.
A June 5 report by the United Nations mission in Iraq to the U.N. Security Council said insurgents had bombarded the Green Zone with rockets and mortar fire more than 80 times since March, reportedly killing at least 26 people. It said the attacks had increased steadily, from 17 in March to 30 in April to 39 in the first 22 days of May, the last day for which the U.N. had figures.
“The overall security environment presents a major challenge for the United
Nations, particularly for its staff in the International Zone in Baghdad,” the report said, adding that steps were being taken “ to reduce the overall risk to United Nations personnel.” Those steps included limiting U.N. movements within the Green Zone and relocating U.N. staff to “more
hardened accommodation facilities.”
Despite the increased number of mortar and rocket attacks, the U.N. report said the new measures allow official to assess the risk in the Green Zone as “at the medium level.”
On Wednesday, Rear Adm. Mark Fox, the chief U.S. military spokesman, acknowledged that mortar and rocket attacks have increased in recent weeks, but declined to cite numbers.
“It’s clear there are attempts to get lucky shots,” he told reporters, noting that the sprawling metropolis of Baghdad offers an “enormous radius where people can shoot these weapons into the International Zone.”
U.S. and Iraqi forces are forging links with civilians, whom he said are cooperating and informing on militants. “But we’re also fighting a thinking and barbaric and indiscriminate killing enemy,” he said.
Rockets are larger than mortars and cause more damage. But they area less mobile.
A small mortar can be operated by two people – one to drop the fin-tail shells into a metal firing tube, the other to set them off. A small high-quality shell is the equivalent of a stick of dynamite and can blow up a car. Larger shells are several sticks' worth and can destroy a house. The Green Zone has become pocked with mortar blasts, some along heavily trafficked pedestrian paths.
Mortar or rocket fire need not be accurate to achieve terror, underscored Thursday when panicked government officials sprinted to bunkers, even as other Iraqi civilians walked to the shelters.
Last week, mortars fell while U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte was in a building discussing the Iraq government's efforts to meet key political targets set by Washington and aimed at promoting national reconciliation. A resident at the Rashid Hotel in the Green Zone told reporters that one mortar round fell in the hotel courtyard, killing one employee and wounding several. The hotel is home to some members of parliament, journalists and foreign contractors.
Mortars even rained during a four-day curfew ending Sunday, following the second bombing at the revered Shiite al-Askariya mosque in Samarra, 65 miles north of Baghdad.
A U.S. embassy spokesman said he didn’t know where Thursday's mortar or rocket fire came from, and probably wouldn’t reveal that information even if he did. However, he quickly added that U.S. embassy officials are not required to wear body armor and helmets, as has been previously reported.
“That was only for a couple of days,” said the spokesman, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “I can swear on a Bible and the Koran, we’re not required to wear protective gear.”