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Ruins of U.N. Baghdad HQ Being Imploded

Aired August 21, 2003 - 11:37   ET


LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: But, folks, we wanted to show you as this was happening. This is the headquarters, the former Canal Hotel in northeastern Baghdad, which has been serving as the U.N. headquarters there in the city. It is now being destroyed.
Let's go now to our Jane Arraf, who is reporting for us right now not far away from that point.

Jane, what had you heard about what's going on there? The last time we had heard from anyone there this morning, there was still the possibility that there may have been two people still unaccounted for.

JANE ARRAF, CNN CORRESPONDENT: There was a possibility that there were people still in there, also the possibility that there are human remains they will never recover, as well as possibly some pieces of the investigation, but the word is that that building is so structurally damaged that it could not have withstood any further probing of it.

As we're seeing that explosion, what seemed to have been an initial explosion -- I'm sorry, we've just got a lot going on behind us. It's a bit unusual. It's are a tank going behind us, I don't know if you can see that, and sirens. We're just going to see if there is anything going on, and we'll get back to you on that one.

But meanwhile, at the Canal Hotel, that building has a long history, as you know, of more than 10 years has been the heart, for better or worse, of the U.N. It had U.N. weapon inspectors based there, it housed the whole oil for food program. It was where everything happened.

As you can see from those pictures, it's now history. It's going up in further explosion that will demolish it and perhaps serve as a monument as to what happened -- Leon.

HARRIS: No doubt. And you may have been listening this morning to the coverage as we've been listening to comments coming from the U.N. this morning where a memorial service of sorts where Kofi Annan was addressing the U.N. workers there and around the world as well by satellite, in something of a service or release coming together to comfort the souls of those who are normally accustomed to going to countries and helping people who live there deal with the crisis, and now the U.N. themselves are dealing with one, as we see here.

Jane, do you know whether or not we'll learn anything more about the logistics of how this building is actually going to be brought down. Is it going to be taken apart by tank fire, or is it going to be explosives mounted inside? Do you know anything about that?

ARRAF: We don't know specifically what their plans are, but usually when they demolish buildings like this, it's with explosive charges. One would assume that it would be the same case now. Now what we saw is the beginnings -- I'm sorry, we're hearing gunfire behind us. That's fairly routine, so we'll let you know if that develops into anything.

HARRIS: I understand, I understand.

ARRAF: Still, as for that explosive charge that's taking down the Canal Hotel, they obviously would do it very carefully, carefully timed, and possibly in a series of explosions to bring it down as safely as possible -- Leon.

HARRIS: Well, Jane, this may be a bit premature then, but if they had decided then to detonate this building, or to at least implode it, they means, therefore, they don't expect to go inside and recover anything else, whether we're talking about any remains, we're talking about any people inside, but also any equipment or any books, records, you name it, that the U.N. may actually have in there. It has been an operational headquarters. What then happens to the U.N. operation? Do they set up someplace else? Do they start from scratch? What do you know about that?

ARRAF: Well, a U.N. spokesman earlier said they were going to move their administration and support headquarters to two places, Cyprus and Amman, Jordan. So essentially, what they're doing is dismantling the structure they had and moving that top level of the U.N. operations outside of Iraq, where it's safer.

Now they're leaving about 200 people here, and surprisingly, these are people who are very passionate about staying. Now, a lot of the staff, even the ones who have been through the bombing, had said that they want to stay no matter what. They have taken to heart that message that this should not deter the U.N. from doing its work.

And one of the things that's probably overlooked is the atmosphere between U.N. staff and Iraqis, has been generally very cordial. With this bombing, they've received an outpouring of condolences from Iraqis, and most staff said they never felt endangered. In fact, they've received nothing but a warm welcome from the people here. When they have been threats, they have been institutional threats from the former regime, or in the case from the car bomb, from a specific group, but not from the local population -- Leon.

HARRIS: All right, just to let people know, Jane, what they're watching right now as we keep your picture and mine as well up on the screen, along with this scene right here of the U.N. headquarters, this compound here on the right; it is the headquarters that was devastated by that truck bomb or car bomb a couple of days ago. And we are just seeing the first salvo of what appears to be a demolition process there.

As a matter of fact, since we have that on tape, let's play that again right now so you folks can see that. That's what you see on your left is what happened there moments ago.

So there you have it, sort of a before and after, if you will. There is a before picture there on the small screen and an after one there on the right. We're told this entire structure is going to be destroyed or imploded, as you saw there. That was the first salvo, but we don't know what the schedule is for the rest of the building coming down.

But our Jane Arraf who is there in Baghdad, reporting to us as we watch this, that the U.N. decided that even if there are remains inside, those may be remains that they may not be able to get to or recover anyway, so they are going to have to bring this building down.

Jane, let me ask you something in the hours after that bombing that destroyed this building and destroyed the lives of these U.N. workers, who were there basically to dedicate their lives to making life better for Iraqis. Can you give us a sense of whether or not people there really believe that this is a real turning point in the operation there, and that, do you sense that perhaps Iraqi people are going beginning to feel differently about the occupation, about the reconstruction process at all or anything like that?

ARRAF: It has to be a turning point. When something like that happens, it really focuses's everyone attention on how in the world can they go on, and how can they fix the situation? And the Iraqis, who have been really in despair for the most part about the lack of security, about what they see as constant threats against them, really, this is plunging them even deeper into despair.

And although there is probably light at the end of that tunnel, it will certainly be a very slow road. What this has done really was driven home to a lot of Iraqis that almost nowhere is safe. And the thing that the coalition keeps saying, is that if Iraq is going to be safe, Iraqis have to make it safe. But right now, they don't have the structure to do that. They do not have a full complete working police force, there is no Iraqi army. This really is that very transitional phase, and the hardest phase perhaps. For many people even more difficult than the war, where they don't know if it's ever going to get better -- Leon.

HARRIS: Very interesting. You talk about safety, and I'm just noting as I'm watching the scene there at the U.N. headquarters, it appears to me that there are still a number of people there milling on the outside of that building, there on the other side of these vehicles you see here. I saw quite a few heads popping up. That wouldn't appear to be safe a place to be if we're watching or talking about explosives being used about a few yards away to bring this building down.

ARRAF: Well, they are imploding the building, which if it's done correctly, which we assume they will, means that it will explode from the outside in, and that it won't explode the way that truck bomb exploded. The people who you would see around there would be presumably Army experts, as well as possibly some senior U.N. staff, security people. The people who have been there ever since the truck bomb have been investigators, military people and a few U.N. personnel. They haven't let a lot of people near that sight. It's been very heavily guarded. What we've seen for the past couple of days are a lot of relatives who came to find the fates still of people who are still at various hospitals. There are some people still who are missing. Their fate is unknown.

But as for the immediate area around that site, it is quite heavily guarded, only a few people who are there and people who know how to deal with these controlled implosions -- Leon.

HARRIS: Let me ask you about some of the political machinations that are in play right now. In the headlines this morning all over the place are these comments coming from the U.S. administrator there, Paul Bremer, who has said that he wants the Iraqi Governing Council to step forward and take a more prominent role, to be more responsibility for security there in the country. Give us a sense of what the Iraqi Governing Council actually is doing, or is even capable of doing as far as security goes.

ARRAF: In theory, it is capable of doing more in security. In practice, it doesn't really have the means. When you're talking about security, the -- if we take the specific example of the U.N. headquarters, Leon, that is an area that was vulnerable on a number of counts. It was on a main highway to Basra. There was constant traffic back and forth.

Now the location of that, it was built and developed in much different times. The U.N. moved into it when this was an era of Saddam Hussein and everything was very tightly controlled. And if there was violence, it was generally directed by the regime. There was no such thing really as suicide bombers, no such thing as random attacks, so it was built in that respect.

But in terms of where they go from here, certainly, security aspects and the Governing Council, they can talk about security a lot. But to get real security, they either need more U.S. troops, more international troops or they need a functioning Iraqi security force. It takes a lot of time to build that, particularly when you have decreed, as the coalition has, that the army is over, the army is eliminated, that Baath Party members cannot return to their jobs. They're building it from the ground up, and it takes a lot of time -- Leon.

HARRIS: All right, Jane, as you were explaining all of that, we're watching this scene here unfold here at the headquarters there. It appears as though most of those military vehicles that we've seen, perhaps all of them, are now wheels up and getting out of there.

As you can see there on the right side of your screen, these vehicles are all -- they had once been parked there, right there in front of that point where we saw the explosion on the corner of the building, and it looks as though all of the troops and the Red Cross personnel that were there in the vehicles are now in the process of leaving the scene. No idea exactly what this means. Perhaps this could be the preparation now for the actual demolition of the building.

Jane, can you actually see that from your vantage point?

ARRAF: I can't see that, Leon. But it would probably mean that they are moving further away from the perimeter so if, indeed, they are going to take down the entire building, that, obviously it's done without vehicles and with a minimum number of people around.

HARRIS: All right, Jane, as I'm being told now by our producers that the word is this will not be a total demolition. The entire process now is -- I guess the focus was on getting a particularly dangerous part of the structure taken care of, and that would kind of actually make sense to my eyes, at least, because as I look at the building, it doesn't look as though the entire building, at least, again, to my uneducated eye, is in a ramshackled condition. But apparently, there was one particular point there on the building that was of particular concern and very dangerous we're hearing, and that was what was destroyed.

Jane, were you close enough to the building to maybe get a guess of exactly what that might have been?

ARRAF: Yes, I was there a few hours in the evening hours after the explosion, and you could tell that, as you say, what suffered the most amount of damage was that corner of the building that was almost completely sheared off, and that was the area that was directly underneath Sergio De Mello's office.

Where the smoke was, where the controlled explosion was just a few moments ago, that could have been one of the common areas. On the other side of that building was the entrance, was the cafeteria, and it was where there was a press conference going on at that time. Now almost everyone who was in this building were injured. There were more than 100 people injured. The people who were closer to De Mello's office were the people who suffered the most. There were very few survivors there.

But in other parts of the building, they were wounded by debris, they were wounded by exploding fragments, and that part was still standing, but the structure was considerably weakened -- Leon.

HARRIS: Thank you, Jane. Jane Arraf reporting live for us there.


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