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Explosion Behind Baghdad Sheraton Hotel

Aired December 24, 2003 - 12:30   ET


SATINDER BINDRA, CNN NEW DELHI BUREAU CHIEF: Carol, I'm about 100 yards away from the Sheraton Hotel. It's across the street from us. At about four minutes ago, there was a huge blast. This blast was so powerful that I was almost thrown over.
And about two and a half minutes after this blast, we have been hearing some gunfire; we have been hearing a lot of automatic weapon fire, again from the direction of the Sheraton Hotel. People on the street are now telling us there's smoke arising from just behind the Sheraton Hotel.

Now, all of this on a day, Carol, when there have been at least three bomb blasts across Iraq. The first blast went off near northern Iraq. Two U.S. soldiers were killed in this incident. Another bomb going off here in Baghdad city, killing a bus driver and a civilian. And, of course, the third bomb going off in Erbil in northern Iraq, in the Kurdish autonomous zone.

We're told a suicide bomber rammed his truck against the side of a government building. The suicide bomber, of course, was killed. Another civilian was killed. And some news reports suggesting that the fatalities were much higher.

Carol, back to you.

LIN: Satinder, getting back to the explosion at the Sheraton Hotel there, give us an idea of what that area is like because, typically, buildings we've seen in Baghdad, heavy presence of security, coalition forces patrolling the streets. What sort of security was around the hotel?

BINDRA: These hotels are just outside the Green Zone, which is where the coalition authority is centered. But I must add that it's very heavy security around our hotel and the Palestine Hotel. You have to go through long, narrow and winding chicanes. There are several barriers that have been put up here to deter suicide bombers.

There's also some heavy weaponry just down here, just by the side of the Sheraton Hotel. We have a Bradley fighting vehicle. We also have several armed soldiers.

But right at the moment, I must add, Carol, we don't know what caused this blast. As I just said, it happened now about five to six minutes ago. And shortly after this explosion, which was very powerful and quite close to us, we heard some automatic gunfire. It sounded to me like AK-47 fire.

Carol, back to you.

LIN: All right. And given those facts that you do know, Satinder -- and I know you are still getting information in on the scene -- but what would you surmise actually happened? I mean, it wouldn't have been, for example, a fire in the kitchen and an explosion related to something mechanical, would it? I mean, this likely sounds like it was a direct attack.

BINDRA: Well, many things could have happened. It could have been what they call RPGs here, or rocket-propelled grenades. It could have been an explosion caused by what they call IEDs here, explosive devices.

So right at the moment, it is too early to say exactly. But I can tell you that coalition sources have been telling us over the past two days that they expect more attacks, they have been prepared for more attacks, especially during the holiday season. And -- which is why just early yesterday coalition forces launched several strikes, they used helicopter gun ships to straight (ph) positions from where the coalition claims insurgents have in the past have fired mortar rounds at them -- Carol.

LIN: All right. All right. We have been reporting that Westerners stay at the Sheraton hotel. Who are they?

BINDRA: Well, both here at the Palestine Hotel and at the Sheraton Hotel, you have a lot of Westerners, people working for international companies which have contracts here in Iraq. You also have journalists staying at both these hotels.

But it's still unclear what exactly happened and who exactly the target was because, like I said, this explosion went off just on the backside of the Sheraton Hotel. It could be, and we are not certain yet, that the Sheraton Hotel itself may have been targeted, and this projectile or explosion perhaps missing its mark as well -- Carol.

LIN: Satinder, do you see a pattern of activity? For example, you're reporting that there were several raids around Baghdad last night by coalition forces. Then suddenly today there is an attack on what appears to be -- we believe it's an attack on what appears to be a Western target. Is there a tit for tat?

BINDRA: Well, yes. I mean, these are classic symptoms of an insurgency. There's low intensity warfare going on. We noticed one very discernible trend. In the month of November, if you'll recall, U.S. troops were targeted a lot. Some 80 troops killed during November.

In December, those numbers have come way down, and what one has noticed here is more attacks against civilian Iraqis. And bearing the brunt of these attacks, some Iraqi policemen. Almost 30 Iraqi policemen have been killed here in the past eight to nine days.

And I have been talking to the Iraqi policemen. They say they are attacked because they are seen as collaborators with coalition forces, and they're seen, perhaps, as softer targets than the U.S. military here -- Carol.

LIN: Satinder, we are looking at what appears to be a medium shot of the Sheraton Hotel, perhaps the sign itself. It's a little murky, because I know the camera is trying to take a night shot. It appears we lost the picture for a moment. I'm not sure what we're looking for.

But describe the area around there again. Where exactly is it?

BINDRA: Well, the Sheraton Hotel is located in the heart of Baghdad. Now, it's a very prominent landmark. It's a skyscraper. And right next to the Sheraton Hotel is the Palestine Hotel.

Both these hotels house Western figures, they house contractors who have business interests here, who are working with the coalition to try and rebuild Iraq. Now, I can also add that the security in this zone is quite intense. You just can't walk in. You have to go through at least four to five checkpoints, you have several barriers, you are frisked, you are body searched, and you also have sniffer dogs here.

Also, down below you have at least one Bradley vehicle. You have armed troops there on guard. They're on patrol at all times. So this is a very intensely patrolled area -- Carol.

LIN: All right. Satinder, stay right there. We are working this breaking news story.

Also, on the telephone with us now is CNN military analyst, General Don Shepperd. He's calling in from Tucson, Arizona.

Don, what do you make of what happened today? What does it sound like?

MAJ. GEN. DON SHEPPERD, U.S. ARMY (RET.): Yes, Carol, fairly predictable. It appears to me that after the capture of Saddam, these folks want to pull some in-your-face maneuvers, if you will.

They know it's the holidays. They know how special that is to Americans and, of course, to Westerners. They basically want to show that they're still around, that they can break security no matter where it is because, as we said, security in this area is very tight around all the hotels in Baghdad.

I was there a couple of months ago, and lots of security around there. So they want to show they can do it. And I would not be surprised to see many other moves against Westerners and Americans worldwide, and even in the United States over the holidays.

LIN: Well, what can be done about the situation there? I mean, it seems that there are a series of raids, a series of explosions, more raids by the U.S. coalition forces, more insurgents arrested or attacked, and still these attacks continue.

SHEPPERD: Yes. Carol, it's going to take time to root all of these people out. We're never going to root all of them out. The problem with the raids is, of course, you produce a lot of enemies when you go into someone's house in the middle of the night, jerk them around, take out a father or a husband, interrogate them.

Now, the good news is we are getting more and more leads as people are convinced Saddam is not going to come back. The problem is sorting them. It's not the volume of leads, it's sorting them and getting them right so that you don't go into and walk into an ambush or you don't follow something that is intentionally misleading.

So it's going to be a very tough time that we are going through here. And, in my opinion, we're going to be shot at until the day we leave and on the boats going out. There's no end to this. We're just going to have to be vigilant worldwide and keep the pressure on.

LIN: Well, are you describing a situation that the Clinton administration faced in Somalia, where U.S. forces had to be pulled out entirely?

SHEPPERD: No, not at all. I think the president has made it clear that we're going to stick out. But in my opinion, the quicker we can get out, by turning it over to Iraqi forces that are trained and able, so that the Ba'athists don't come back, so there's not a civil war, and not a radical Islamic regime, I think the quicker we can get out the better it will be for everybody. But it will be at the minimum a couple of years before we can do that.

LIN: Don, you have been talking about the tight security around these Western targets, and we have also been reporting as a network the possibility that insurgents have infiltrated perhaps some of the local staff that the U.S. coalition force depends on to get information and to translate.

Because this attacker was able to get so close to this Western target, what does that tell you about the ability of these insurgents to continue to get close enough to cause some serious damage?

SHEPPERD: Yes. A couple things about that, Carol. First of all, one thing that you really want to be careful of, is you want to put enough barriers in place where they can't drive high-speed vehicles with huge amounts of explosives. It will bring down a whole building. That's step number one.

The other step is, of course, being able to frisk people so that they have things such as belts of explosives and that type of thing on, such as you see in Israel. You want to be able to intercept them. Some of them will probably get through no matter what you do.

As far as the insurgents being -- infiltrating the agencies, you absolutely assume that that is happening. That includes the police, the military, the border police, and all of that. You test them, you vet them as best as you can before you join up, and then you continue to watch for things and get information from people as you work with them, because that's a danger all the time, not only in Iraq, but in every other place. You watch for spies and infiltrators wherever you go in this ugly business.

LIN: All right. General Don Shepperd, please stay with us on the telephone live from Tucson.

We're going to go back to our correspondent on the scene in Baghdad at our camera position.

Satinder Bindra, have you learned any more about the nature of this explosion near or behind the Sheraton Hotel there in Baghdad?

BINDRA: Carol, we have just got some information from the military, and military sources here telling CNN that an RPG, or a rocket-propelled grenade, was behind this huge explosion that we heard. We are also hearing that the Sheraton Hotel was possibly the target of this rocket-propelled grenade.

And as I have been reporting, the Sheraton Hotel is where several subcontractors stay. It's also where several Western journalists have been staying for the past few months.

Now, I should add, this is a very heavily fortified area right in the heart of Baghdad. Down the street we have a Bradley fighting vehicle. We also have several armed soldiers. And security in this area, I should add, Carol, is very, very tight. Just to get in, you have to drive past several narrow and winding chicanes. There are concrete barriers to deter suicide bombers as well.

Back to you.

LIN: Satinder, obviously you are donning protective gear now. Do you have information to believe that your building may be vulnerable as well, despite all the security that you are describing right now?

BINDRA: Well, this same hotel that we are in, Carol, was attacked by rockets a few weeks ago. These rockets were placed on the backside of a donkey cart and they were fired into this hotel. These rockets went into the 16th floor of the hotel. Luckily, no one was injured.

So clearly, these attacks now centering around targets here in downtown Baghdad. We are hearing from military sources that it is possible that this rocket-propelled grenade had chosen the Sheraton Hotel as a target. It missed. And this happened about 15 to 16 minutes ago.

Shortly after the rocket-propelled grenade went off, we heard a burst of gunfire, a burst of automatic gunfire. It sounded like AK-47 rounds to me.

Now, Carol, what is significant is all of this happening on a day when there's been three other bomb blasts across Iraq. One bomb going off in Samarra, just north of Baghdad, killing two U.S. troops. A bomb here in Baghdad, killing two people, including a bus driver. And also, a suicide bomber who exploded his bomb in Erbil in northern Iraq -- Carol.

LIN: Yes. Obviously, a very violent last 24 hours there in Baghdad. Stay right there, Satinder, as long as you feel that it's safe.

Don Shepperd, our military analyst, back on the telephone with us.

Don, what more do you make of this situation?

SHEPPERD: Yes, a couple of things, Carol, that aren't making sense. Of course, we are at the early stages of reporting this.

They described a big blast. And an RPG, or a rocket-propelled grenade, does not make a huge blast. Although, in the middle of the night it may sound like a huge blast. Of course, it could hit something key that would cause it to blow up. But if it was a huge blast, they might have fired rocket-propelled grenades as well, and then set off another type of explosion if it, indeed, was a huge blast.

But again, a single RPG, or even several RPGs, do not do a lot of damage. They throw a lot of shrapnel when they hit on impact, but they don't cause huge explosions.

LIN: So what should we draw then from the nature of this kind of layered attack, if that's what happened, what you are describing?

SHEPPERD: Yes. I think you have to assume that these things are very well planned. They know when they make direct attacks on U.S. forces or U.S. interests that they are encountering heavy fire power and likely to be killed. So they have gone to the improvised explosive devices.

So any time they make direct attacks like evidently took place here, again realizing that we don't have all the information, it means it's a well-planned and well-coordinated attack. I would suspect they will try to do this in several places over the holidays, again, as an in your face, hey, we are still around, you have not killed us and we're going to be around until the end.

This is going to be a dangerous place as long as we are there, and there are going to be a lot of raids keeping the pressure on over the holidays here because we know we can expect this type of attack from the other side.

LIN: So who would be firing the automatic weapons after the explosion?

SHEPPERD: Could be us, could be them. Undoubtedly, they would be armed if they are going to be involved in these attacks. And so it could be that we are firing at them or they are firing at us and us returning fire.

You can't tell. I could tell if I was there listening to the fire where it came from, but I can't tell from listening to the TV.

LIN: All right. So do you see an increase in the type of tactics being used there, that suicide bombers are more and more being used in this region? And if so, does that tell you a little bit more about who might be responsible and who might be funding those operations?

SHEPPERD: Yes. A couple of interesting things about the suicide bombers. Most of them are not Iraqis. This has not been an Iraqi tactic. Most of them are radicals, jihadists that come from outside.

Now, we were afraid early on that this would become the center for thousands of jihadists in Iraq and that they would link up with the former Ba'athists. That does not appear to be the case. Although we have seen in the neighborhood of a few hundred coming in, there haven't been large waves of them. So we're watching for this very carefully.

But normally, it's the jihadists that are coming in. And they are not doing it for money. They are doing it for other radical reasons that we see all over the world. So this is dangerous, and again, we will watch infiltration patterns.

The more information that comes to us in Iraq, the longer we are there, the better we are able to root out these people. But again, there's no end to the type of attacker that will put an explosive belt around himself and blow himself up. They can do that forever. And it's just something we're going to live with as long as we're there.

LING: But you are saying that the only solution in sight really for the Bush administration is to fight against these attacks, tolerate them on a certain political level, and pull out as quickly as possible, and replace U.S. coalition forces with local Iraqi forces.

SHEPPERD: Yes. It's not a case of us running, because from a military standpoint, these folks cannot defeat us at all. And this is not a typical insurgency like Vietnam at all.

This is Ba'athists that have money, they have arms. And they realize that they don't have a future.

When we were over there, General Sanchez, the leader of the Joint Task Force, made the point that the solution is not military. The solution is to try to figure out a way to have a reconciliation with the former Ba'athists and give them a stake in the new Iraq so they themselves stop all of these attacks that do such things as destroying infrastructure, the oil, the electricity, the water, et cetera.

Right now, they have no future. And he feels that creating a future for them so they have an interest in producing a stable economy and a stable Iraq is the key. Not just continued military attacks.

LIN: General, it seems that the situation on the ground has degenerated even more since you were there. You yourself, obviously so experienced in military tactics, did not feel it was safe enough to stay in the country. You flew in and out of Kuwait.

SHEPPERD: We did, Carol. We flew in and out of Kuwait, and the reason was we were the first delegation to go in there. And it takes an enormous amount of security to keep you in the country. There aren't facilities for you to sleep. And so it makes a lot of sense to fly in and out of Kuwait. Also, if they lost someone on a high profile visit, it is obviously going to be a feather in the cap. So they don't want that to happen.

It is not a safe police. And indeed, it has gotten worse since we were there. But one of the reasons it has gotten worse is perhaps the feeling of desperation of the Ba'athists with Saddam captured now. We expected that after Saddam was captured it wouldn't go away, that there would be an intense period after that to show, hey, we are still around, as Ba'athists, and of course also as jihadists.

And so it does not mean that it's going to be safe. But they feel that over time we will be able to decrease the level of violence. But my feeling is, again, that the solution is to get the Iraqis trained and trained well enough that they're strong enough and keep the bad guys out. And then turn it over to them, and then for us to get out. We are only an irritant as long as we're there.

LIN: All right. Getting back to the specifics of the news at hand, we are looking at a live picture of the Sheraton Hotel and the lights surrounding there as an investigation, I'm sure, is ongoing there on the ground into an explosion which took place behind the hotel.

What Satinder Bindra is reporting live from Baghdad is that a rocket-propelled grenade had been fired. We are talking with our CNN military analyst, General Don Shepperd, who disagrees that the nature of this blast, something that Satinder Bindra reported literally threw him off his feet at the Palestine Hotel next door, that there may be something more than just an RPG at play here. Also, automatic gunfire being heard after the explosion.

Satinder Bindra live once again in Baghdad. What is going on there on the ground? Have you learned more about any injuries? What is happening on the ground?

BINDRA: Carol, we have gone back to the military with the information that we got from General Don Shepperd. The military saying once again that this was caused possibly by a rocket-propelled grenade. The military also telling us the intended target was the Sheraton Hotel. But this rocket-propelled grenade missed its target.

We've just sent a crew out on to the road, and they are telling us they see no signs of injury. So clearly, this rocket-propelled grenade missing its target. As I have just been reporting, shortly after this blast there was automatic gunfire. I thought it was AK-47 fire. That lasted for a few seconds.

And then all has been quiet here. But not across Iraq. Just today, we have had three bomb blasts across the country, and all these blasts have caused fatalities. One blast in Samarra, one blast here in Baghdad, and one blast in the north part of the country in Erbil, which is part of the Kurdish autonomous zone.

Back to you, Carol. LIN: Satinder, you raised some questions on the specifics of the attack against the Sheraton. You said it missed its intended target. What was the intended target?

BINDRA: The intended target, according to military here, the Sheraton Hotel. The Sheraton Hotel is home to several journalists; it's home to several subcontractors. These subcontractors working with the coalition authorities to rebuild Iraq. They are involved in power projects, they are involved in phone projects. They are involved in improving the drinking water situation here.

So, I should also add, as word of this attack gets around now, that the security in this area has always, always been very tight. There are armored people down here in the streets. And also, when you do enter these hotels, you have to pass through several checkpoints -- Carol.

LIN: So you are saying no damage to the building and nobody injured?

BINDRA: No damage to the building and nobody injured, in as far as we can tell at the moment -- Carol.

LIN: So what happens after an explosion like this? Is there a -- does it take on the nature of a criminal investigation? Are they looking for the potential attacker? And if so, how do they go about doing it?

BINDRA: Well, they're clearly going to look and find out what happened. At the moment, generally the rule in Baghdad is few people want to go out at night. It's still very dangerous to go out at night.

And then in the morning, my sense is these investigations will take on another turn. Right at the moment, I guess people here are just happy that, at least for the moment, there's no serious loss of life -- Carol.

LIN: Great. All right. Satinder Bindra saying specifically that the Sheraton Hotel, its rooms, its occupants, many Western contractors were the specific target.

General Don Shepperd, our military analyst, joining us on the telephone from Tucson, Arizona.

Don, it sounds like the military is disputing what you think may have happened. They insist it is an RPG, that force of explosion came from an RPG.

SHEPPERD: Yes. Carol, I'm not disputing that it was an RPG, because I have no idea. It's just that an RPG does not make a huge explosion. Although, if it goes off near you, it may sound like a huge explosion, if it went of near Satinder Bindra's hotel there, especially in the middle of the night when there's not surrounding sounds from traffic, et cetera. A couple of other things I noticed. The hotel is very difficult to miss. An RPG is a shoulder-fired weapon. It's normally designed for close range to fire at tanks.

I noticed all the lights were on in the hotel, or appeared to all be on. So that would mean there was no great damage to the hotel. But again, it doesn't produce a huge explosion at all. It may sound loud.

That is a harassment type of attack, where you're firing a small grenade at a huge building. If you get it through somebody's window and they're inside, of course you could kill them. But it's harassment. This is not a big attack. On the other hand, we can expect other and bigger attacks over the holidays around -- from larger explosive devices.

LIN: But frankly, if what you are saying is -- I mean, it's not a big attack in the sense that there wasn't any damage to the buildings, there weren't any deaths or injuries, thank goodness -- but the psychological damage that could be caused, you if are staying in a Western hotel with the force protection surrounding you, you would think that something like this would not happen.

I mean, this could -- well, I have not been there, and you have. But the sense is that they do get Western contractors. These folks are not Army personnel. They are not trained in military contract.

They are regular Janes and Joes going out there, trying to set up phone lines and rebuild oil companies out there, trying to get food into the region, and doing some good work out there. Potentially, what are the psychological effects that these terrorists are trying to throw their way?

Major General Don Shepperd? Do we have you on the phone? I think we lost the connection there.

SHEPPERD: Am I still here, Carol?

LIN: Yes, you are.

SHEPPERD: Yes. I'm thinking of a couple of comments about that. I know you have been in plenty of dangerous areas. I saw you during the early part of Afghanistan reporting from Pakistan, which is a dangerous area in itself.

These contractors and people like that know about the danger. Now, of course, when they are in a hotel that gets blown up, or something of that sort, it certainly gets your attention and gets your sense of humor when they're being attacked. But most of these people accept the danger when they go over there. They know when they are going to Baghdad they are going to a dangerous place.

Of course, over time, some of them over time will leave, but on the other hand, for the most part they will stay and accept this danger. The thing they have to do is they have to protect the hotel with security. And when they are out in their working areas, they have to be protected out there because they know they're very vulnerable.

We have come to really depend upon contractors wherever the military goes. It's a big, big deal for us. Food, housing, all those types of things are supplied by contractors. And even the maintenance of some of our military equipment is done by contractors. And many of them are ex-military personnel.

But it does get your sense of humor. I spent a year in Vietnam, where very often we were mortared or rocketed at night. And you accept it when you're in the military. But we had a lot of civilians with us that accepted it and stayed with us, too.

LIN: You bet. All right. Well, General, you just touched upon what many of our mothers say is just crazy behavior. But you're right. We go to where the story is happening.


LIN: All right. Thank you very much, Major General Don Shepperd.

Joining us now, Kelly McCann, one of our security analysts. Kelly McCann has just returned from Baghdad.

Kelly, what do you make of what happened today, the explosion behind the Sheraton Hotel?

KELLY MCCANN, CNN SECURITY ANALYST: Hi, Carol. Well, there's a couple things that are important. One, of course, is that the contractors do mitigate risk as much as they possibly can. However, it is a war zone, and there are some things that you cannot mitigate, primarily, indirect fired weapons or direct-fired weapons in the case of an RPG. But from a distance it's hard to protect against, like 200 meters or that kind of distance.

Having been in Baghdad a couple of times now for fairly long periods of times outside the Green Zone and staying out in the community, all of those hotels do have significant physical security protection. But they don't have the ability to go out and actually patrol the areas around them in order to push the security buffer out. And that's where a lot of these problems come from -- Carol.

LIN: Kelly, have you been to the Sheraton Hotel? Are you familiar with that street?

MCCANN: I am. I'm very familiar with that whole section, the Baghdad Hotel, the Sheraton, the Palestine. They're all fairly close together. And they do have significant physical security measures around them -- Carol.

LIN: So give us a mind's eye picture, when we say behind the Sheraton Hotel, how much access would somebody have? And if they were firing an RPG which missed a large target, an RPG being a shoulder- fired weapon, they would have to get pretty close in to perhaps make a direct hit. Describe the location of where that explosion took place and where the likely attacker would have had to fire upon given the information that you have.

MCCANN: Well, there's a couple things. Number one, an RPG wouldn't be the size of the explosion that seems to be being described. I mean, an RPG is not going to knock people over buildings away. It just simply doesn't have the kind of payload necessary to do that. So I think there's a little bit of confusion going on right here at the moment.

The other thing is that this is an urban area. So to the extent you are able to set up security around your immediate confines, maybe a block out or so, that still is within range of an RPG outside that range. So, it's -- like any urban area, you can only control so much.

You simply can't lock the whole city down because then it disturbs traffic patterns, commerce, et cetera, the very things we are trying to make sure happen. So it is a difficult situation, one that is typically handled by saturation patrolling and high visibility. But asymmetrical attacks like this are used just for this very reason. They are very, very difficult to protect against -- Carol.

LIN: Kelly McCnn, a pleasure to talk to you. Welcome back to the United States after your dangerous travel there's to Baghdad.

MCCANN: Thank you, Carol.

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