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Bomb kills at least 5, injure 15 at Baghdad restaurant

BAGHDAD, Iraq—At least five people were killed and 15 wounded Wednesday when a bomb destroyed a Baghdad restaurant that was popular with foreigners, turning a New Year's Eve party into a rubble-strewn scene of broken glass, screams and confusion.

Among the wounded were three Los Angeles Times reporters, none of whom was seriously injured. All five of those who died reportedly were Iraqi.

The bombing capped a particularly bloody day in Iraq, in which a car bomb targeting a military convoy in another area of Baghdad injured five U.S. soldiers and three Iraqi security personnel, and ethnic violence in northern Iraq left at least three people dead and more than 20 injured.

The restaurant bombing, heard throughout the city at about 8:30 p.m., shattered windows for several blocks and reduced a section of Nabil's restaurant to a fiery crater. A massive hole at the site suggested a car bombing, though authorities on the scene couldn't say for sure how the device detonated.

Only hours earlier, Brig. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the commander of the 1st Armored Division, which is responsible for Baghdad's security, had said coalition forces had far less intelligence information about impending New Year's attacks than they'd had for Christmas. His briefing centered on a recent series of raids in Baghdad that targeted cells of insurgents. Asked whether the operation was successful in breaking up those organizations, Dempsey said time would tell.

As in almost every bombing or attack in Iraq, no one immediately claimed responsibility.

The restaurant is nestled in a quiet west Baghdad neighborhood marked with upscale clothing stores. A tobacco shop across from Nabil's sells Cuban cigars. Nearby villas are hidden behind security gates and men with AK-47s. The restaurant served mainly European food and was a favorite among young, affluent Iraqis, expatriates and foreign journalists.

Half an hour after the bombing, survivors hugged and the restaurant's owner was in tears. Men, their clothes covered in dust and speckled with blood, stood on the roadside, looking blankly at the smoke rising into the night air. American troops parked their Humvees and Bradleys at the scene, and barked at the crowd to move back.

Nabil Hanna, 40, said he opened the restaurant a year ago and that "90 percent of the customers are Iraqi." His brother, a co-owner, sobbed under the din of ambulance sirens.

"We don't know why bombers would choose us," Hanna said. "There were no special guests, not too many foreigners, and it was just a normal dinner. This was supposed to be the last of 2003. This was supposed to be a happy new year."

Waiters from a nearby restaurant ran from their duties to check on friends who worked at Nabil's. One man they knew emerged from the scene with severe cuts on his face. Another, they said, was missing.

"My head is still ringing from the noise of it," said Saji Khateeb, a 28-year-old waiter. "All I can think about is my injured friend."

The car bomb earlier in the day detonated as the patrol made its way toward Palestine Street in north-central Baghdad. The force of the blast threw a chunk of the sedan several feet and obliterated the rest. Adjoining businesses and an apartment building were hit by metal fragments, and the ground was blackened by fire.

It was the third such explosion in four days. On Sunday, one soldier was killed and five were wounded by an explosion in the Karadah shopping district, south of Palestine Street. On Tuesday, an explosion missed a passing convoy of soldiers, killing one Iraqi civilian and wounding another.

The improvised bombs, tucked away in cars, under rocks, in dirt or beneath burlap sacks, have become a fact of life in Baghdad. Usually made from artillery shells or mortars and detonated by remote control or suicide bombers, the devices are easy to make in Iraq, a country with many unguarded weapons dumps.

"They are trying to cause us not only to feel the physical effects but the psychological effects," Dempsey said, noting that soldiers fear an attack every time they turn a corner.

A demonstration Wednesday by Arab and Turkmen residents against plans for Kurdish control of Kirkuk, an oil-rich city 150 miles north of Baghdad, ended with three people shot to death and as many as two dozen wounded.

Demonstrators carrying banners that read "Long live Arabs and Turkmen together" tried to force their way into the offices of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party when the scene turned violent, according to American and Iraqi officials.

Witnesses gave varying accounts of who fired the first shots into a crowd of hundreds who had gathered to protest calls for the city to become part of a Kurdish federation in northern Iraq, according to news reports.

Ethnic and religious tensions have erupted across the nation in recent weeks, with disparate factions battling for political and economic power. Members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council said sectarian clashes threatened the stability of the country and, in a worst-case scenario, could lead to civil war.

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ

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