SATURDAY, NOV. 19, 2005

Suicide car bombers target Baghdad hotel

BAGHDAD, Iraq – Insurgent bombings killed at least 80 people in Iraq on Friday, including 74 Shiite worshipers who died when suicide bombers walked into two mosques and blew themselves up in a northeastern town.

Hours earlier, a twin suicide bombing targeted a hotel housing foreign journalists that had been overlooked by the insurgency. The attack killed eight Iraqis and marked the first time the Western media have been collectively targeted in such a manner since the war began.

The twin bombings in the town of Khanaqin, 6 miles from the Iranian border, spread the scourge of sectarian violence into a part of the country that had until recently been calm. Reports from the town said two mosques were reduced to rubble when suicide bombers wearing explosive vests detonated themselves among worshipers at Friday prayers.

The bombing came amid rising tensions ahead of December’s crucial election for a full-term Iraqi government, tensions that have been fueled by disclosures that the Shiite-led government’s security forces have been torturing Sunni detainees suspected of ties to the Sunni-dominated insurgency.

The Baghdad attack occurred close to the location where a bunker filled with about 170 ill-treated detainees was discovered by the American military last Sunday, but a U.S. military official who did not want to be named said there was no question that the Hamra Hotel, home to many Western news organizations, was the intended target.

Although foreigners were targeted, the casualties were Iraqis, as is often the case. Among those reported killed were the wife, daughter and son of a hotel employee who lived nearby in an apartment building too flimsy to withstand the blast, unlike the sturdily built hotel.

Bombers used a technique similar to one utilized three weeks earlier in an attack against the better-known Palestine Hotel. The method is designed to penetrate the thick concrete blast walls that most hotels, government buildings and other potential targets have thrown up for protection in the two years since the war began.

A first suicide bomber, driving a passenger van packed with 400 pounds of explosives, was dispatched to punch a hole in the 12-foot-high concrete blast wall protecting the back entrance of the hotel. Moments later came a second bomber, driving a water truck packed with 1,000 pounds of explosives, who apparently intended to drive directly into the hotel, the U.S. military said.

The first bomb destroyed the blast wall but created a pile of rubble too big for the second bomber to navigate. The water truck detonated just short of the rear of the hotel, destroying a small apartment building and gouging a 10-foot crater in the tarmac.

The U.S. military brought in earth-moving equipment to dig through the wreckage. The crumpled body of a small child wrapped in a bloodied sheet was dug out about two hours after the blast. Minutes later, a dazed but alive Sudanese resident of the building was carried out on a stretcher, apparently only slightly injured.

The main building of the hotel where many Western news organizations are based suffered only slight damage, but a smaller, sparsely occupied rear annex housing the offices of the Chicago Tribune and a few other news organizations was badly damaged.

The blast shattered the relative sense of immunity that members of the Western press who have chosen to lead a low-profile existence in the obscure hotel have felt until now.

While the more heavily guarded Palestine Hotel houses some foreign news organizations, a number of Western security contractors, long a prime target for insurgents, also are based there. When al-Qaida in Iraq claimed responsibility for the Palestine attack, the group cited the presence of security contractors as the reason for targeting the hotel.

But the Hamra Hotel, which is in a relatively calm, middle-class neighborhood, almost exclusively houses journalists, making it unlikely the bombers did not know the foreigners living there were members of the press.


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