BAGHDAD — At least nine mortar rounds or rockets exploded inside the fortified Green Zone in what's become a near-daily demonstration of the limitations of the U.S.-led security crackdown and militants' resolve to rain terror on even the most protected area of Baghdad.
The U.S. military announced the deaths of 14 American troops over the past two days, including five slain Thursday in a single roadside bombing in Baghdad that also killed four Iraqis.
In the northern city of Kirkuk, 18 civilians were killed and more than 70 wounded when a gunman rammed a truck bomb into a municipal building in the Suleiman Bek area, destroying the building and damaging neighboring homes.
The barrage of seven rockets that hit the Green Zone in the morning sent scores of civilians and military personnel scurrying for cover inside box-like concrete bunkers stationed near checkpoints. There were no casualties.
Two other mortar rounds or rockets struck the zone at about 10 p.m. No information about damage or casualties was available from U.S. officials.
At least one shell or rocket reportedly struck a parking lot used by Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and his security detail. Others struck the American-manned Ibn Sina hospital and a base used by multinational forces. At least one of the blasts burned several cars.
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. Several minutes later, the guards allowed people to return to their cars.
Rockets and mortar fire aren't 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 every day this week, mortars and rockets have slammed into the 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, are worried for their safety, but are afraid to leave for fear of derailing their careers. They've demanded that the State Department or the Pentagon build more substantial housing to replace the trailers most workers sleep in.
A June 5 report by the United Nations mission in Iraq to the U.N. Security Council said the U.N. has moved much of its staff into "more hardened accommodation facilities" in response to the increase in rocket and mortar fire.
The report said that rockets and mortar fire had struck the Green Zone 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. But it added that the hardened accommodations and limits on where U.N. personnel can go within the zone had kept the risk of being there at a "medium level."
On Wednesday, Rear Adm. Mark Fox, the chief U.S. military spokesman, acknowledged that mortar fire and rocket attacks have increased in recent weeks, but he declined to cite numbers.
"It's clear there are attempts to get lucky shots," he said, 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, who 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're also 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 the equivalent of several dynamite sticks 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 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 Iraqi 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 down during a four-day curfew that ended Sunday, following the second bombing at the revered Shiite Askariya mosque in Samarra, 65 miles north of Baghdad.
A U.S. Embassy spokesman who asked not to be named because he wasn't authorized to discuss the subject said that U.S. Embassy officials aren't currently required to wear body armor and helmets, as they had been previously. He declined to comment on whether embassy staff had recently been provided more secure housing.
A roundup of violence in Iraq appears daily on the McClatchy Washington Bureau Web site. Go to http://news.mcclatchy.com and click on Iraq at the top of the page.
(Drummond reports for The Charlotte Observer.)