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Blast at U.N. Headquarters in Baghdad

Aired August 19, 2003 - 09:01   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: As we begin our third hour of AMERICAN MORNING, we have this breaking news to tell you about. There has been a blast at U.N. headquarters in Baghdad. It happened at the Canal Hotel. An unknown number of wounded are there now and there are medical choppers apparently hovering above, according to reports.
BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, there was one report from Reuters indicating that scores were injured and also another report from the Associated Press saying that windows were knocked out a mile from the center part of that explosion.

It's happening right now, still developing.

Jane Arraf is live in Baghdad -- Jane, I don't know how far you are from the Canal Hotel.

You're at the Palestine Hotel, where you've been for many, many months on end.

What can you tell us about this explosion?

JANE ARRAF, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Bill, we have a crew at the scene, at the Canal Hotel, and our people there are reporting that they are seeing a smoking car, which may have been the cause of a car bomb. They're seeing medical helicopters circling over that building and smoke billowing out of a shattered facade of a building that had been the main U.N. headquarters in Baghdad.

Now, that's been U.N. headquarters for many, many years and they have beefed up security considerably, particularly in anticipation that someone might try to set off a car bomb. If you drive there now, there are concrete posts, there are many more security guards and they really had taken quite a few more precautions. But it still stands as one of those soft targets, certainly much easier for a potential attacker than a U.S. military post here in Baghdad -- Bill.

HEMMER: Jane, I'm trying to get a sense of geography from your location. The other thing I'm trying to get is a sense of security. We know these American positions in Baghdad are very, very fortified. Was the U.N. location the same?

ARRAF: Not nearly so much. It being the U.N., there was not a visible armed presence there. In fact, all during Saddam Hussein's regime, they relied on Iraqi guards patrolling those streets, because U.N. guards were not armed.

Now, as I said, they have beefed up security and physically, essentially, it was harder to get closer to there, but still not impossible. They had built special areas for parking. They had removed from the building itself the area in which people would go to meet with the U.N. people. They had taken quite a lot of precautions. But still, it was a U.N. building and they really did not want to send the message that it was either an armed camp or part of the U.S. military. This was the United Nations and it's where the U.N. has operated from for many, many years.

They intentionally, it's believed, just didn't want to make it look, as the U.N. doesn't want to make it look anywhere in the world, as if it were a part of the American military. And it didn't look like that. But they had beefed up security considerably. There have been specific threats against not just U.N. people, but foreigners in general in Iraq -- Bill.

HEMMER: All right, Jane, one more question, quickly.

How strong is the U.N. presence in Baghdad today?

ARRAF: They have several hundred people here, at least, and it's a number that changes. But they do have a considerable presence and quite possibly in the high hundreds. They have a lot of different programs going on. They've had programs that have been here for many, many years not located in that building, such as UNICEF and the U.N. Development Program.

In that building itself, you had the administration of the United Nations as well as people who are here specifically for the Iraq program. UNSCOM used to be based there, the former U.N. weapons inspectors. After they left, it was really seen as quite a benign place by almost all Iraqis, not one really associated with anything anti-Iraqi or detrimental to the Iraqi people.

But clearly this was a target that was possibly a softer target than the U.S. military, a high profile target, and one that seems to have gotten a considerable number of international staff -- Bill.

HEMMER: All right, Jane, thanks for that update there.

We'll turn you loose to let you get more information.

Jane Arraf in Baghdad.

Ken Pollack is our CNN analyst, a former CIA analyst, as well, now works for the Saban Center down in D.C.

Ken, welcome back.

Good morning to you.


Good to be here.

HEMMER: It appears, obviously, the violence continues. That's quite obvious from the reports we're getting. So, too, does the sabotage. Put this together right now. How difficult is this prospect for the U.S. military?

POLLACK: Well, this is a very daunting prospect, Bill, because you're talking about a variety of different things going on. First, as you were pointing out in your conversation with Jane Arraf, the attackers recognized that the U.S. targets themselves are getting very difficult to hit. So they are looking for softer targets. Some of those targets are things like, as we've seen today now, the U.N.

Over the weekend, we saw them going after economic targets -- oil pipelines, water facilities, power plants, ways to get at the larger effort at reconstruction and harm the U.S. goal, prevent the U.S. from achieving its goal of helping the Iraqi people to rebuild. It's going to be very hard for the U.S. to protect all of these different things unless it has the support of the entire Iraqi nation.

HEMMER: And it is expensive, too. Paul Bremmer told CNN just yesterday, in fact, it's about $7 million a day as a result of that oil pipeline that runs north several hundred miles into Turkey. It's a major expense right now.

Go back to the daily violence right now and the argument that the U.S. has to reduce its presence, its footprint, so to speak, the amount of exposure it has. In order to do that, you have to fortify the Iraqi police. You have to get this Iraqi defense force up and running, said to be about 7,000 strong. And you have to incorporate other soldiers from other countries.

Your position on that argument comes down where?

POLLACK: Well, I tend to be of the opinion that we're going to have to do all of those things. I actually think that there's an argument to be made that U.S. forces, at least for the moment, need to be more present. There are a lot of people that are talking about how keeping the U.S. soldiers holed up in these particular strong points makes them seem like an occupying force and it further antagonizes other Iraqis.

I don't know whether that's true or not. I've certainly seen military officers argue that. But I certainly think it's the case that we're going to need to acquire more and more Iraqis to help with the policing and security. But I think desperately we are going to need forces from overseas. We're going to need other countries, allies around the world, countries like India, like Germany, like France, who can provide thousands and thousands of additional forces.

HEMMER: So long as they're willing, right?

POLLACK: Exactly. Absolutely. This is the problem is we've got to convince them to come.

HEMMER: Yes, listen, there's breaking news, also, out of Baghdad, about three hours ago. The former vice president was apprehended in Kurdish controlled territory, northern Iraq. The president, a bit around of golf earlier today, talked about his capture. We want to play what the president had to say about it and we'll talk about its significance. Here's the president earlier today.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, I don't know the facts of, you know, where he was, what was going on. I'm really pleased that we've captured the vice president. Slowly but surely we'll find who we need to find. It's just a matter of time. And, listen, we've got a lot of brave people doing a lot of hard work in Iraq and it's because Iraq was terrorized and dominated by a dictator it's going to take a while to get this country to understand what's necessary to be a free country. But we'll find them and we'll bring them to justice.


HEMMER: His name is Taha Yassin Ramadan. He was number 20 on the Iraqi deck of 55, said to be captured in the northern part of the country.

How significant, Ken?

POLLACK: It's somewhat significant, Bill. Look, Taha Yassin Ramadan was a really nasty character. He is one of Saddam's old Baathist companions from way back when. He was one of the real hardliners in Iraq, I mean and that's saying something. This is someone who I can't say for certain was a war criminal, but I'd probably be willing to bet a year's salary that he was. A horrible person. It's great to get him off the streets. It's also interesting that he, too, was up in Mosul. Remember, that's where Saddam's sons were killed. And it indicates that the remaining figures of the regime are trying to hide wherever they possibly can.

HEMMER: Yes, you have to wonder what the impact is on the Shia population, too. He's the one who's largely credited for leading the crackdown on the uprising of early 1991, right?

POLLACK: Well, absolutely. That is correct. Taha Yassin was part of that. He's been part of a lot of crackdowns. And certainly I think this is one of these things where, yes, there are going to be Iraqis who are going to be happy that Taha Yassin Ramadan is off the streets, but I think it's important to connect this back to the other story of the day, the U.N., the bombing of the hotel where the U.N. is staying.

HEMMER: Yes? How so?

POLLACK: Which is to say that while it's true, as President Bush is suggesting, that the old figures of the former regime are systematically being rounded up and it probably is just a matter of time before we get them, the problem that we're facing is that the other difficulties in the country are allowing for new resistance to arise, people who may not have anything to do with Saddam Hussein -- al Qaeda figures moving into the country, other Iraqis who may have been receptive to the U.S. at first but now believe that the U.S. isn't necessarily going to do the job and are starting to turn against us.

And if those trends continue, we're going to have a much bigger problem than just getting rid of Saddam and his thugs.

HEMMER: Well, Ken, hang on a second here.

Ken Pollack, our analyst down in D.C.

We're watching some videotape on another monitor that we're going to get to in a moment. It's videotape fed in raw right now. We'll get it turned around quickly. This is the scene at the U.N. headquarters at the Canal Hotel that was operating a short time ago. Clearly you can see in this videotape a large plume of smoke in the distance. That camera will come a little closer in a moment here.

Based on what Jane Arraf is reporting, and a lot of times the information changes after the early moments of attacks like these, but what we believe to be the case right now is that the explosion took place, originating in a car, possibly a car bomb, that was parked right outside the U.N. headquarters, again, at that hotel known as the Canal Hotel in Baghdad.

The first pictures in from Baghdad right now, as you can watch the smoke filter across the desert sand there.

Much more from Jane Arraf. We've got our teams on it throughout the world and the region there.

More on it in a few moments -- Soledad.


HEMMER: Back to Baghdad quickly. We just want to watch these pictures again for you as we go to a break here in a moment.

The smoke can be seen on the horizon. We're told that Army Black Hawk helicopters were seen flying toward the scene of this large explosion at the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, the place where the U.N. has set up its headquarters and is now operating. The early indications we have is that it was a car bomb that blew up.

Let's get a break right now.

Jane Arraf is back with us in two minutes live in Baghdad, in the Iraqi capital, when we continue our coverage from there.

Back in a moment.


HEMMER: Back to Baghdad. Right now we're watching these pictures come into us. It's not clear how this explosion occurred. There was one report that it could have been possibly a car bomb. There are some U.N. workers near the Canal Hotel, the headquarters there, that say maybe a mortar round was fired or some sort of weapon was used. The bottom line is we don't have all the facts right now, but we're trying to get them to you.

Back to Baghdad and Jane Arraf -- Jane, what have you heard about casualties?

ARRAF: Well, Bill, first of all, the U.N. military is confirming that it does appear to have been a car bomb that went off, and quite a big one from the looks of it. A U.N. spokeswoman tells us that there are many wounded. We're not sure how many. No indication yet of whether anyone was killed in what appears to have been quite a big explosion.

Now, as you can see from those pictures, there's smoke pouring out of the building that has at least part of it shattered by the blast. Some people reporting windows shattered as far as a kilometer away.

Now, this was an area of town where the main feature is this building that is the U.N. headquarters and has been for many years. It's a former hotel converted into offices for top U.N. people and staff who are here, international and local staff who work on the Iraqi programs. It had been somewhere that security had been beefed up considerably recently, but still nowhere near the security that you would see at an American military post, for instance -- Bill.

HEMMER: Jane, also, as we watch these pictures and see these images, I just want to get a better understanding about what the U.N.'s role has been today in Baghdad.

What are they doing there on a day to day basis at this point?

ARRAF: It's probably relatively low profile in terms of the impact they actually have. They're doing a tremendous amount that often goes unnoticed. But they are really part of this country and part of the day to day humanitarian operations and have been for more than a decade. For instance, they have operations here that help distribute food. They are rebuilding water and sewage plants. They do humanitarian work in almost every sector -- schools, education, all sorts of things.

They have recently undergone a transformation, if you will. The U.N. oversaw the economy here all during sanctions, since the last Gulf War, when sanctions were put in place, when Iraq tried to -- when Iraq agreed to sell oil, it was the U.N. that oversaw the sanctions and the humanitarian program that brought in food and medicine.

They no longer have that role and there have been trying to define their role. The U.S. has wanted to limit them politically, but still they have a very big impact, a lot of staff, a lot of people, a lot of programs in every part of this country -- Bill.

O'BRIEN: Jane, it's Soledad in New York.

Give me a sense of what you were able to hear and a sense of your location to the hotel, the former hotel where the U.N. headquarters now were.

Could you hear it? Could you see and can you see now any of the smoke wafting over in your direction at all?

ARRAF: We could see the smoke earlier. That smoke has now dissipated. Now, the strange thing about Baghdad is it has become almost normal to hear explosions. We didn't hear this particular explosion, but even today there were two major explosions. And we don't really know at the time whether these are planned, controlled explosions by the U.S. military, which is still rounding up unexploded ordinance and setting it off as a safety measure, or whether these are, indeed, attacks.

Now, when we hear explosions, we go off and try to find the source of them. We called the military and the military generally does not have immediate information or information for quite a long time after many of these attacks and explosions.

In this case, you could see the smoke rising from that direction and when we got closer, as we heard earlier, one of our producers was reporting that he could see smoke still rising from that building, the helicopters circling and clearly the aftermath of what had been a very large explosion -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Can you give us a sense of who was inside this particular building? I've heard that the U.N. actually has several offices around Baghdad. So would all several hundred employees of the U.N. be in this one former hotel or would they be all across the city?

ARRAF: They would have been scattered around. But this building would have held most of the headquarters for the operations that have to do with Iraq itself and the current programs regarding Iraq. There are other very large U.N. organizations such as UNICEF and the U.N. Development Program that don't have anything to do with the current situation and they have separate offices and have had for many years.

As a security measure, people, some of the people actually had been staying in the Canal Hotel and they had limited the number of other hotels that people could stay in. There has been quite a large concern for the welfare and safety of U.N. staff because there have been threats against them, as there have been threats against other international staff or other organizations here. And they've taken considerable security measures.

So that building itself would have had the top administrative people, as well as the people who are working specifically, who have come here specifically to work on programs in Iraq, most of them developed after this war, to help reconstruct, to help get that humanitarian aid out.

WFP, for instance, would have operated out of there. A lot -- the World Food Program. A lot of the major programs that are geared towards providing emergency assistance and very basic assistance such as food and medicine and water would have been there -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Jane Arraf for us in Baghdad this morning. Jane, thanks for that update and we will continue to check in with you throughout the morning.

Thank you.

HEMMER: We want to get back to Ken Pollack right now, listening to all this down in D.C.

Ken, you've spent a substantial amount of time in previous years in this part of the world. What's quite interesting, I think, listening to Jane, just to give us her daily perspective, they hear several explosions on a daily basis, she says. And it also gives them pause sometimes on which ones to go out and chase and which ones to go out and cover. But clearly this is an event that is going to raise a lot of attention in Baghdad and around the world.

POLLACK: Well, absolutely. This just goes to the pattern in Iraq that the U.S. and other occupying forces cannot get control over the security system. And it also raises questions as to exactly what's going on. I think if you link this up with the bombing a few weeks ago of the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad, some kind of a new pattern is emerging. This will have been the second car bomb. And one of two things could be going on. One is it could be al Qaeda operatives, other foreign terrorists coming into Iraq. They used car bombs on a regular basis. We know that that's their modus operandi. And if they're operating in Iraq on a greater and greater basis, that's one set of problems.

The alternative is that the extant resistance inside of Iraq, whether it be Saddam's loyalists or other disgruntled Sunni tribesmen or Islamic fundamentalists or other groups who have been resisting the United States, that they have now discovered car bombs. And this would represent a new increase in their capabilities.

So either of these two is possible. But both are equally troubling because both indicate a growing security problem for U.S. and other occupying forces and yet another problem that the Iraqi people need to deal with as they try to get their lives back in order.

HEMMER: You mentioned the al Qaeda issue. Paul Bremmer says that there is now evidence that possibly hundreds or great numbers, anyway, to play the numbers game a bit safer there, are now coming to Iraq and what we're starting to see right now is the possibility that you point out, insurgents coming back to fight and take on American targets because they are there by 150,000 strong at this point in Iraq.

Go to this other issue, too, about the Shiite population. We were talking with Fawaz Gerges earlier today on AMERICAN MORNING. He believes that one story getting the most amount of attention in the Arab press is whether or not the Shiites join the resistance and if they do, he believes that spells very, very bad news for the Americans.

Your position on that is what? POLLACK: Well, I think that's obviously a no brainer, Bill. If the Shiites join the resistance, yes, the reconstruction effort is doomed. The Shia are the majority of the population of Iraq. They represent somewhere between 60 and 66 percent of the Iraqi population. And so far -- it's very important to keep this in minute -- so far the Shia have been largely appreciative and cooperative with the effort. They may not necessarily like the United States. They certainly suspect U.S. motives. But they were the most oppressed under Saddam Hussein. They were the most delighted to be rid of his rule. And they also continue to still believe, as best we can tell, that their best outcome is going to be that the U.S.-led reconstruction effort succeeds.

They understand that the U.S. is there trying to build a new democratic Iraq, where they will finally have political power equal to their demographic power. So, so far they want the U.S. to succeed. If that changes, if over the course of time they decide that the United States is either not getting the job done -- and we saw those riots down in Basra, where people were simply complaining that the U.S. wasn't delivering the power and the services that they had promised -- or if they believe that the United States is not going to make good on its promises to build true democracy in Iraq, you could see the Shia turn against the United States. And if that happens, this whole reconstruction effort could go up in smoke.

HEMMER: All right, Ken, thanks.

We want to get you to stand by right now in D.C.

We've got a CNN employee on the telephone near the scene, too.

O'BRIEN: It looks like, Duraid Isa, we are told, is near the scene. And he joins us by phone.

Duraid, thanks for joining us.

Can you hear me?

DURAID ISA, CNN EMPLOYEE: Yes, I can hear you.

O'BRIEN: OK, go ahead and give me a sense of what you're seeing and exactly at what point you got there so that you can tell us when you saw all of this happen.

ISA: Well, I am here at the site of the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, which is the U.N. headquarters here in Baghdad. And I am at the northwestern side of the building. And the northwestern corner of the building has been blasted, apparently by an explosion. No one has yet confirmed to us what the explosion was, yet there's a lot of destruction to the facade of the building and a lot of U.S. military are around. They are cordoning off the area.

So far, five helicopters have taken casualties and evacuated them out of the site. There is, there are a lot of U.S. military units and there are a lot of helicopters. I can confirm four helicopters searching the area and the U.S. military, along with the Iraqi police, have cordoned off the area.

O'BRIEN: Duraid, a quick question for you, and I should tell you that we're getting confirmation from the U.S. military that there was a car bombing, they say, at the Canal Hotel. In addition to that, there are some reports, U.N. employees are saying that a mortar or some type of weapon was fired at the hotel.

Give me a description of this hotel. How big is it? What does it look like? When you say the northwestern corner is damaged, to what degree? I mean is it, is it absolutely blown out? We can see part of it here, that at least the wall is missing. But how deep is that damage?

ISA: Well, I can tell the damages, let's say, to the buildings that I see that where the explosion has taken place, I can say that 10 to 15 percent of the building has been completely damaged, while the rest, there's a lot of broken glass and shards. The building is not very large, but it's fairly accommodating -- about 20 rooms per floor. It's a three floor, three story building with 20 rooms facing outward, east.

And I see now the U.S. military carrying out a victim, two victims, actually, now are being carried out of the scene on stretchers.

O'BRIEN: Give me a sense of the chaos around you. Are people, you know, we're having a little trouble with hearing any audio, so are people screaming? Are they shouting? Are things relatively calm? We see people milling about but I have to imagine that a little closer up, there's a lot more chaos than we're able to see. Can you describe that for me?

ISA: Well, no, it's not really a chaotic scene here because I can tell you the military are controlling the crowds because they are cordoning off the area. They're not answering any questions to the relatives of those local employees who came over to the scene by now and started asking questions about them. I see many women crying around here, trying to find their sons or husbands and that's an hour by now. Right now it's an hour from the explosion. And we've been here for about 35 minutes by now. And I can tell you that there is a fairly large crowd, but there is also a lot of military units that are controlling the scene.

The scene is not chaotic, but there are a lot of people and a lot of media covering the ground.

O'BRIEN: You mentioned several Black Hawk helicopters flying above and evacuating some of the wounded.

Can you give me a sense of the numbers? How many folks have you seen -- potential casualties -- being taken out?

ISA: Well, I have seen five taken off and there are still more. There are about four around different corners of the building and all the casualties are been moved to them. There were some ambulances taking out casualties, too, from the scene. But there are fighter helicopters (AUDIO GAP) now in the air around me. There are four medical helicopters, military medical helicopters flying around the scene, and there are three on the ground.

O'BRIEN: All right, Duraid Isa, thank you for updating us.

We're going to continue to check in with you throughout the morning.

And as he just mentioned, about an hour now since the blast happened.

HEMMER: There are reports of injuries. In fact, there is one report, we cannot confirm it at this time, that at least three people are dead, as well. We watched that videotape, Soledad. And the one side of that building looks like it's suffered considerable damage, completely collapsing on one wall there.

Also, CNN has confirmed the U.N. representative to Iraq, Sergio de Mello, has been badly hurt. We don't have a better description of his condition. But he is described as being badly hurt as a result of this explosion there in Baghdad. And, again, we mentioned the front of the building has collapsed. And, again, these numbers are going to change as we go through it.

But we do know there are casualties. There are injuries. How many, how extensive, we cannot say at this point.

We're going to get back to Baghdad in a moment with Jane Arraf. Also, our CNN crew is working their way to the scene and at the scene there.

And Ken Pollack is here, as well, in D.C., a man who knows all too well this country and its history.

And, Ken, as you watch these events, this really follows a domino pattern that we've been watching for the past week, Iraqi regime you consider that oil pipeline, if you consider the other attacks, if you consider how the Iraqis almost week to week have gotten much better at these innovative explosive devices, which have accounted for the greatest number of casualties for U.S. soldiers patrolling the streets and the bridges and the train tracks throughout that country.


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