Soft Target, Hostile Crowd

The site of the huge explosion in central Baghdad on Wednesday looked like Dante's Inferno. I happened to be just a few blocks away when the blast occurred, so photographer Kristen Ashburn got there within 15 minutes of the blast. It was sheer chaos. The five-story Hotel Mount Lebanon was on fire, with huge clouds of black smoke billowing above it. The ground was covered with rubble, sirens were wailing, an ambulance was leaving with wounded victims. Emotional Iraqis were converging on the scene. U.S. soldiers began arriving in Bradley fighting vehicles; one took up a position in the street outside the hotel.

The neighborhood in Baghdad's Karrada district is one of the older areas of the city. There are shops and apartment buildings and houses, including some once-grand European-style mansions built in the early part of the 20th century by members of Baghdad's Jewish community. But the Hotel Lebanon was a nondescript hotel built of concrete and brick. Residents said Arab businessmen from nearby countries such as Lebanon and Egypt sometimes stayed there, as well as occasional Americans or British working as contractors for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). The area was also multiethnic, in that Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds lived there.

I was struck by how close the carnage was to Firdos Square--Paradise Square--where I had stood nearly a year ago watching exuberant Iraqis tear down a massive statue of Saddam Hussein with a little help from U.S. Marines.

The mood after the blast was a stark contrast to that celebratory scene. The crowd of Iraqi bystanders became even more agitated when casualties started filtering out into the street. A man with wide, staring eyes carried a young girl, her body limp in his arms. Other people were half-carrying a wounded man who was bloodied but still able to walk. People were shouting at photographers not to take pictures. Some Iraqis were gesticulating angrily at the American soldiers.

This sort of anger had also erupted after explosions in Karbala and Baghdad a couple weeks earlier, during observance of the festival of Ashoura. At that time, Western journalists and photographers were beaten up by Iraqis who blamed Americans for not being able to provide security for the Shiite religious ceremonies.

I thought about those stories as Iraqis yelled and gestured aggressively at Kristen and me outside the Hotel Lebanon. Some of them began roughing us up. I was pushed to the ground. Then an Iraqi man who could speak English grabbed my arm and said, "Come with me, you've got to get out of here." He helped me get away from the crowd, made sure I wasn't hurt, then melted away into the darkness. Kristen also made it out of the melee safely.

At one point gunfire erupted; I never found out who was shooting nor why. By this time more U.S. soldiers and ambulances were arriving on the scene. The American military personnel were trying to keep people away from the blast site. (Their rationale: terrorists sometimes plan more than one explosion, specifically timed to target those who've arrived on the scene as part of the rescue effort.) In the darkness it was impossible to gauge the exact extent of the damage nor the size of the crater; later it was reported to be at least 20 feet in diameter. People had helped the injured out of houses near the hotel; a number of buildings were badly damaged.

My driver had said he saw an intense flash of light before hearing the explosion. Other eyewitnesses said they thought they saw something streaking through the air before the blast; this may one reason why a senior Iraqi official reported that the explosion might have been a rocket attack. I had no way to know for sure, but what I saw--the intensity of the blast, the extent of the damage--was consistent with a car or truck bomb.

Because of the crowd's hostile behavior, we left the scene before getting a sense of the number of casualties. Wire reports initially said there were at least 27 dead and 41 injured, but that toll has since been revised downward, with U.S. officials saying Thursday that seven people had been killed. At least some of the injured were Americans, according to a colleague who helped the U.S. victims get free from the rubble. I suspect the death toll will climb, since some survivors on the scene were desperately searching for missing relatives and friends by digging barehanded through the rubble.

The Hotel Lebanon was the softest of soft targets. The larger and more prominent Palestine and Sheraton hotels not far away--home to many foreign journalists--have armed guards manning checkpoints, concertina wire and massive concrete barriers for protection. The Hotel Lebanon had no such precautions. Just an hour or so before the blast, at a press briefing inside the Green Zone, CPA spokesmen had noted that the attackers were changing tactics: instead of going after "hard" military targets, they were shifting their focus to "soft" civilian targets.

In the past week alone, two American civilian CPA employees were gunned down in their vehicle near Hilla and killed; four U.S. Baptist missionaries were shot to death and another wounded in Mosul; a German and a Dutch engineer were killed outside Karbala; and several civilians working for the CPA were assassinated. Attacks continued after the blast: in addition to three U.S. soldiers killed in two overnight mortar attacks, Thursday saw gunmen killing three Iraqi employees of a U.S.-funded Iraqi TV station and a car bomb taking the lives of five Iraqi civilians near a hotel in the southern city of Basra. From the ground zero here in the Iraqi capital, it certainly seemed like the terrorist campaign against soft targets was escalating, and the effort by anti-American elements to sow chaos in Iraq was entering a dangerous new phase.