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Truck Bomb Kills 17 at U.N. Baghdad Headquarters

Aired August 19, 2003 - 13:59   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: It's well past dark in Baghdad right now, but rescue operations are still underway in the ruins of the Canal Hotel. At least 17 are known dead at the U.N.'s Baghdad headquarters, a so-called soft target in a city of barbed wire and barricades.
And we know now the dead include the U.N. special representative, the man in charge there, Sergio Vieira de Mello.

A news conference was underway in the building when a bomb-laden truck came out of nowhere and went off.




O'BRIEN: That footage came from the Japanese network, NHK. We thank them for that -- Kyra.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: President Bush vows the civilized world will not be intimidated by terrorists.

From his Texas ranch, Mr. Bush condemned today's attack in Baghdad and pledged America would continue to help Iraqis achieve democracy.

For more now, let's go to our White House correspondent, Suzanne Malveaux. She's with the president in Crawford - Suzanne.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kyra, the White House communications team is working on how to respond to the news of de Mello's death. But earlier today, President Bush did offer his condolences to those who were injured and who were killed in the blast.

It was early this morning that he got word. He was on the golf course. He got a phone call from national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, telling him about the explosion. He immediately afterwards - he left and went to the Crawford ranch to get more updates and also to address the American people and the international community.

Some very important points, of course, saying that the United States would resolve that to fight terror and that ultimately the international community would prevail. Also fanning this issue is one of terrorists against not only the United States, not only the international community, the United Nations, but also against the Iraqi people, saying that it was the Iraqi people that needed to take on these terrorists or otherwise return to the days of Saddam Hussein.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The terrorists who struck today have again shown their contempt for the innocent. They showed their fear of progress and their hatred of peace. They are the enemies of the Iraqi people. They are the enemies of every nation that seeks to help the Iraq people. By their tactics and their targets, these murders reveal themselves once more as enemies of the civilized world.


MALVEAUX: So, again, Kyra, we are expecting some sort of statement from the White House regarding de Mello's death. I also should let you know that the administration is very much aware that they have to try to maintain, try to win the support of the international community. That this is worth it to stay inside of Iraq and deal with the reconstruction effort, the humanitarian effort.

There are those -- some countries who have troops inside of Baghdad, but there are also, as you know, the United Nations. A team was there for a humanitarian mission. And they are trying to make sure that they have the support -- they continue to have the support of the international community that yes, they should say it is worth it to stay to make sure that democracy reigns inside of Iraq -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux, thank you.

Well, if you were with us last hour you did hear an emotional and bewildered U.N. spokesperson say that we were only here to help.

At the U.N. world headquarters in New York, meanwhile, CNN's Michael Okwu tells us there are tears in the hallways. Michael joins us now with an update.

MICHAEL OKWU, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Kyra, certainly tears here and also, just moments ago, the 191 flags of the member nations of the United Nations were lowered and taken down altogether.

The lone visible flag at this hour, the U.N. flag, which is now flying at half-staff. That is a testimony to the 17, at least 17, U.N. personnel who were killed, including, as you mentioned, the secretary general special representative to Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello.

Earlier today the Ambassador Bremer, the administrator for the United States in Iraq, talked about why he might have been killed.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) AMBASSADOR PAUL BREMER, ADMINISTRATOR FOR U.S. IN IRAQ: It may well be that he was the target of the attack. The truck was marked in front of the building that it had to affect his office, which is in the second floor above us.

These people are not content with having killed thousands of people before. They just want to keep killing and killing and killing. And they won't have their way.


OKWU: There is shock, outrage, confusion here at the United Nations among U.N. staff and personnel.

Very interesting to hear from Mr. De Mello himself. Just last July he addressed the U.N. Security Council, talking about the U.N. presence there and, in fact, about security.


SERGIO VIEILA DE MELLO, SPECIAL U.N. REPRESENTATIVE TO IRAQ: The United Nations' presence in Iraq remains vulnerable to any who would seek to target our organization, as recent events in Mosul, described in the secretary-general's report illustrate.

Our security continues to rely significantly on the reputation of the United Nations, our ability to demonstrate meaningfully that we are in Iraq to assist its people and our independence.


OKWU: The U.N. is determined, if you listen to the president of the Security Council this month, as well as other diplomats, to stay in Iraq. The big question since this morning has been what role would the U.N. play. As far as we can see, they are determined to play as great a role as ever -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: Michael, I'm just curious for the other employees within the U.N. headquarters there in Baghdad, what have they been saying? Do they want to leave? Do they want to get out? Are they going to stay dedicated to the mission there? And how does the U.N. plan to convince those that were not injured to stay?

OKWU: Well, honestly at this point there's been very little discussion, at least here in New York, about those kinds of issues. There's still just the sort of shock, if you will, about processing this information.

And keep in mind, Kyra, there's still issues about how many people might have been injured. There's still dribbling information coming in from Baghdad. We know that at least 300 people worked in that building. We don't know how many people might have been in the building at the time of the blast.

So right now the main focus has been trying to get as much information about who was on the ground and who might have been hurt -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: Michael, one final question. U.N. spokesperson Celine Loan (ph), there at U.N. headquarters in Baghdad was talking with our Jane Arraf not long ago, and he was mentioning that the U.N. didn't want to be intimidating to the Iraqi people at all and that they didn't want to -- a large U.S. Military presence around the U.N. headquarters. I can only assume that may change now.

OKWU: It may certainly change. There's no question about it. The United Nations is a target there. They have been a target in the past in places around the world.

But the thing that is really confusing for lots of diplomats here, Kyra, is that the United Nations really wanted to do some good for the Iraqi people. In fact, it was the sort of the one internationally recognized body as being legitimate there. There's still a lot of anti-U.S. and U.K. sentiment.

And diplomats representing the other countries on the Security Council have always been focused on not trying to legitimize the U.S. and U.K. presence there. So they really didn't see themselves as targets, which is why there is a great deal of incredulity here, disbelief about the U.N. having been targeted.

We understand that there was some security at that location. One can only imagine, Kyra, that there will be a lot more security for U.N. personnel at this point.

PHILLIPS: Michael Okwu live from the U.N. in New York, thank you -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: As we've been telling you, the bomb hit just below the office of the U.N. special envoy, Sergio Vieira de Mello, whose four- month term was due to end in just eight days.

CNN's Jane Arraf has been on the scene for several hours now and she brings us the latest, live from Baghdad -- Jane.


O'BRIEN: All right. Clearly we've got some audio transmission difficulties coming out of Baghdad. We're going to get those ironed out.

In the meantime, let's talk to Ken Pollack and bring him in. Ken Pollack, who our frequent viewers are very familiar with, is an expert on this region with the Brookings Institution, the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, specifically. Also the author of the book, "The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq."

Ken, good to have you with us.

KEN POLLACK, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: Thanks, Miles. Thanks for having me here.

O'BRIEN: All right. First of all, this possibility here that this could be a hallmark attack by al Qaeda cannot be overlooked, can it?

POLLACK: Absolutely. They're clearly one of the leading suspects.

We've heard U.S. and other coalition officials saying for several weeks now that there are increasing numbers of al Qaeda and other foreign fighters who are moving into Iraq, because that's where the Americans are and they want to take shots at the Americans.

I want you also to remember that in the past, al Qaeda has targeted the United Nations. They clearly would have an incentive to go after the U.N. compound there. And this kind of an attack, a truck bomb attack, is one of their hallmarks. So it certainly could be an al Qaeda attack.

O'BRIEN: All right. If it is, in fact, that scenario and you have Arabs -- sort of a pan-Arab call to come to Iraq and push out the aggressor, the U.S. in this case, aren't we seeing a replay of Afghanistan in 1979 when the Soviet Union rolled in?

POLLACK: There certainly are some similarities but there's also an absolutely crucial distinction, Miles, which is that in the case of Iraq, all of the evidence that we're seeing from a whole variety of very reputable sources indicates that the Iraq people generally want the reconstruction to succeed.

In Afghanistan the Afghan people wanted the Russians out. In Iraq, the Iraqis don't necessarily want the Americans out.

O'BRIEN: Really, are you sure? How do we know that to be the case? Because we hear so much of the anti-American sentiment that's there.

POLLACK: Right but -- Well, in all honestly when you do read those reports, what always strikes me you'll see a newspaper headline that says 10,000 Iraqis demonstrate against U.S. And you'll see later on down in that same piece the reporter saying, "Well, most of the Iraqis they spoke to were in favor of it."

In fact, NDI, the National Democratic Institute, just conducted a very large survey of Iraqi public opinion. And what they found overwhelmingly was that most Iraqis want the reconstruction to succeed. And what they're unhappy about is that the U.S. is not providing the levels of service and the quickness of reconstruction that they expected. Which is, as I said, is a critical difference from Afghanistan.

O'BRIEN: But try as they might to scramble to get that infrastructure in place they're one bomb away from the water being shut off or the fuel being shut off or the electricity. That's a difficult problem to get around right now, because it doesn't take much to disrupt those efforts to keep the lights on.

POLLACK: Right. That's absolutely right, Miles.

You have a huge gap right now between the expectations of the Iraqi people and what the U.S. is able to actually produce. And in part that's just because the U.S. was never going to be able to do all that much. This was always going to be very difficult.

And in part it's because the U.S. did not do a very good job of setting up the reconstruction of Iraq before the actual war was launched.

And so right now the U.S. has been playing catch-up for at least three months and what you're see something growing frustration on the part of Iraqis. You'll remember the riots in Basra several weeks ago, where people were rioting against the British presence there, not because they wanted the British gone but because they wanted the British to turn the lights on. They expected that the U.S. and the other coalition partners could have done a much better job than we have so far.

O'BRIEN: It's a perfect scenario, though, for al Qaeda to exploit, isn't it?

POLLACK: Absolutely. You've got building anti-Americanism. You've also got a number of other people inside Iraq. And we shouldn't forget that. There are people inside of Iraq who really don't want the U.S. there.

There are former members of Saddam's regime. There are Islamic fundamentalists. There are Sunni Arab tribesmen, all of whom don't want the American there. All of whom are taking shots at the Americans. And all of whom might make common cause with al Qaeda to have the same common goal, to get the U.S. out and might be willing to cooperate in these kind of operations.

O'BRIEN: One final thought here, why the U.N. as a target? Is it because simply that the U.N. compound wasn't as well fortified? Or is there a statement in all this?

POLLACK: Well, I think at this point in time it's a little bit early to know for certain.

Certainly, the fact that they weren't as well protected as the U.S. forces was part of it. If it was al Qaeda we should remember that al Qaeda has always hated the U.N. They were one of the various targets on the U.N.'s list. We've seen them plan for operations against the U.N. at other times.

It may also have been that they felt that the U.N. was part of the reconstruction effort and going after the U.N. would be a way of getting at the reconstruction.

It's going to be interesting to see whether the Iraqis, who typically have a much more favorable opinion of the U.N. and what they were doing, whether they reached the same conclusion.

O'BRIEN: Ken Pollack, among other things, is the author of "The Threatening Storm: The case for Invading Iraq," joining us from the Brookings Institution. Thanks as always, Ken. We appreciate it.

POLLACK: Thank you Miles.

O'BRIEN: Kyra?

PHILLIPS: Miles, we've worked out a few of our technical glitches. We're going to go back to Baghdad now. Our Jane Arraf joins us by phone and not far from the U.N. headquarters. That was the -- was the target of an explosion earlier today -- Jane.

ARRAF: Kyra, we're just outside the headquarters. It is almost completely dark except for the flashing lights of army and police vehicles. Now, they're still going through that rubble that we now know the U.N. special envoy, among several others, have died. And that truck bomb seems timed and in place almost to explode exactly underneath his office.

We heard earlier from the spokesman, Gene Mahn (ph), who said that he had spent several hours with him today and he was amazingly relaxed.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was with him about an hour -- two hours before he died we spent a wonderful two hours together. And I'm just devastated to hear that he has died. I grieve for him and his family. I grieve for all his friends, but I grieve most of all for the people of Iraq, because he was the man who could really have helped bring about an end to occupation, an end to the trauma that people of Iraq have suffered for so long, to lead the reconstruction effort.

It's a very sad day for Iraq and for the United Nations. And wherever there are people who are in conflict and strife. Because we always chose -- Secretary-General Kofi Annan, he is chosen for the most difficult missions. He's chosen for (UNINTELLIGIBLE), he's chosen for Kosovo, and he's chosen for Iraq.

And he didn't want to come here because, you know, he was high commissioner for human right. And he said I do not want to give up my commitment to human rights in order to do this. But everyone said to him, we need you there and indeed in Iraq it is a question of human rights. So he agreed for four months only.


ARRAF: Vieira De Mello was perhaps an easy target, being the most visible person of the U.N., but not an obvious one. He was someone who was generally well liked. The U.N. is not seen, certainly, in the same way as the U.S. military is.

And he had been going throughout the country recently, talking to ordinary Iraqis. Talking to political leaders, trying to find a way, in his words, that he could help them get their own government started as quickly as possible.

Again, the U.N. special envoy, as well as 16 others, about half of them international staff, the other half Iraqi U.N. staff, dead in what happened to be a huge truck bomb set off just outside his office -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: Our Jane Arraf via phone there just outside U.N. Headquarters in Baghdad. Thank you.


O'BRIEN: More reaction coming in from the Bush administration. We heard from the president himself out of Crawford, Texas.

The attorney general, John Ashcroft, was set to give a speech this hour to the American Enterprise Institute. He was to give a defense of the post 9/11 law, the Patriot Act. We believe he is still doing that. But in addition to that he made some comments, some reaction to the bombing in Baghdad.


JOHN ASHCROFT, ATTORNEY GENERAL: This morning terrorists struck the United Nations mission in Baghdad. Killing over a dozen individuals, seriously injuring over a hundred others. The victims were innocent people who traveled to Iraq on a mission of peace and human dignity. Let me just begin by expressing my sympathy to the victims and to their loved ones.

This morning's attack confirms the worldwide terrorist threat is real. It is eminent. Our enemies continue to pursue ways to murder the innocent and the peaceful. They seek to kill us abroad and at home. But we will not be deterred from our responsibility to reserve American life and liberty, nor our duty to build a safer and more secure world.


O'BRIEN: The attorney general's speech continues as we speak. We're monitoring it. We'll bring you more from it as it becomes available to us -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: All right. We're being told -- this just coming across the wires right now. An explosion in Jerusalem, not quite sure where exactly it is. We're saying possibly a bus explosion in Jerusalem. Just another story that we're following today, in addition to, of course, the truck explosion outside or within the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad. More information to you as we get it.

Now, one person who knew Sergio Vieira de Mello very well was Ahmed Fawzi, recently left Baghdad, where he was a spokesman for the U.N. mission there. Ahmed Fawzi joins me now from London.

Sir, no doubt a difficult time for you, along with many others that knew Sergio and knew him well. Why don't you first just tell us about him as a leader, as a person, as a husband, and a father?

AHMED FAWZI, FORMER U.N. SPOKESPERSON: Well, Sergio Vieira de Mello was in all those aspects quite a formidable man. He was an astute political -- he was an astute politician. He knew how to deal with people. He was extremely charming. He was always impeccably dressed and behaved and physically fit. He looked after himself very well. He had a lot of discipline in keeping himself both mentally and physically alert and fit.

And he was a delight to work with and to work for. I worked with him in Baghdad recently and before that in East Timor. He is an inspirational leader, a leader of men and women with his heart in the right place.

He was, as you know, high commissioner for human rights before taking on this challenge in Iraq. And as such he would constantly speak of the importance of human rights and gender equality and the rights of women in every conflict situation that he was in. He did so in Iraq. And as I said, he was -- it's difficult to say "was" -- a delightful man to work for.

PHILLIPS: Mr. Fawzi, a U.S. today -- an administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, coming forward and saying that he very well may have been the target in this explosion, this truck bomb at U.N. headquarters in Baghdad today. Why?

FAWZI: Well, there is no reason why Sergio de Mello should have been a target, at least no logical, reasonable sane person would have targeted Sergio, except that he is the most high profile U.N. representative in Iraq at the moment.

He has always been a very high profile operator. Highly respected and admired by his peers and his colleagues alike. He represents the international community. The United Nations was targeted here. There were, as you know, other casualties, both dead and wounded, and if there was a target, then I think it was the international community, which Sergio Vieira de Mello so ably represented.

These people want to create chaos, and they want to derail the process of rebuilding Iraq, of restoring sovereignty to the Iraqi people, of rebuilding their institutions.

He was keen to create an environment where human rights were respected and to rebuild institutions that would promote human rights and protect those rights with ordinary people, men, women and children. He was keen to reform the judicial system, and he was beginning to build the institutions that would help the Iraqis do so.

He was working on helping them rewrite their constitution. He assisted in the negotiations that led to the formation of the governing counsel, which is the first step towards an Iraqi interim administration.

It is a disastrous and criminal act that -- whose only purpose can be to wreak havoc in Baghdad and we should reject that. The international community should stand up, as the Security Council has done, indeed, a few hours ago, and said that this will not deter us from pursuing our mission in Iraq. And that is to help the Iraqi people as Sergio Vieira de Mello wants us to do. And wanted us to do the minute we landed there on the second of June. PHILLIPS: Ahmed Fawzi, you just answered...

FAWZI: His mission was to help the people of Iraq. And we will continue that mission.

PHILLIPS: Well, you -- You just answered my final question, and that is that not one employee that survived that explosion will be defeated and we'll move on with the mission, a mission that you were a spokesperson for in Baghdad.

Ahmed Fawzi, live from London, thank you.


O'BRIEN: Among the journalists who have been on the scene of the Baghdad bombing all day and into the night, Joshua Hammer, "Newsweek" magazine. He's the bureau chief there in Baghdad.

Joshua, good to have you with us.

JOSHUA HAMMER, "NEWSWEEK": All right. Good to be here.

O'BRIEN: What -- Just tell me what you're seeing right now. What's the scene as it is right now unfolding before you?

HAMMER: I'm watching the scene on CNN at the moment, in fact. I'm back at the hotel where a lot of journalists are staying on the other side of Baghdad and we're, of course, there's a lot of concern now after this attack.

There had been a lot of worry about soft targets over the last few days, especially after the Jordanian embassy blast. And I think a loft us are now doing some rethinking about where we're staying and whether we should move either out of the country or to at least some sort of fortified accommodation.

O'BRIEN: So the concern right now, quite frankly, is your own interest, of course, the fact that there are western organizations there that may be just as susceptible as the United Nations?

HAMMER: Yes, I'm not going to tell where you we are, but probably people could imagine, but there are places here where journalists are that are soft targets and there are rumors sweeping the city now that, you know, every foreigner is under threat. And...

O'BRIEN: Are you still there? Are you still there?

I think we lost Joshua Hammer. Joshua Hammer is the Baghdad bureau chief for "Newsweek" magazine. We thank him for joining us, try to connect with him a little later.


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