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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Explosion Targets Large Baghdad Hotel

Aired March 17, 2004 - 14:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, let's recap our viewers. Now it's been two hours and 25 minutes since that bomb explode in central Baghdad in the Karrada district on a very narrow street. We're told it was a car bomb, perhaps in excess of 1,000 pounds of explosives, estimated by one U.S. military official on the scene there, the 1st Armored Division. The current tally indicates 27 were killed, another 41 wounded. We anticipate those numbers will go up, but we're watching that very closely. A 20-foot crater now lies where the Mt. Lebanon or Jabal Lebanon, if you prefer, Arabic, was flattened, a five-story residential apartment-style hotel that was not fortified in any way. Unclear, however, if it was a specific target in this case.
As it turns out the majority of the fatalities have been recovered from residential buildings immediately adjacent to that hotel. It is an ethnically mixed neighborhood, Shia and Sunni living side by side. We are told that among others the Federal Bureau of Investigation will appear in this investigation, trying to determine what person or persons or groups might have been responsible for this.

CNN's Walt Rodgers has been with us every step of the way since this occurred. He joins us from our location, which is at the Palestine Hotel, not far, and as a matter of fact, close now see and hear this explosion all too well.

Walt, brings us up to date on what you're seeing and hearing there.

WALTER RODGERS, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you pretty well encapsulated what we know, Miles. But I can tell you first person that when the explosion took place two hours and 25 minutes ago, I'm about half a mile from the site of the bomb blast. The earth literally shook. Doors and windows rattled. And of course, the closer you got to the explosion, the greater the shaking, and the greater the shattering of glass.

As you pointed out, probably 27 dead at this point, but the number could go higher. Remember, it started with only 10 dead initially. It's now at least 27, well over 40 injured, and despite initial reports by some Iraqi officials, that perhaps it was a rocket blast, the signature, when you look at the street, gives every indication that it was a car bomb or a truck bomb. A U.S. Army official estimates there was 1,000 pounds of explosives used in that. That's an extraordinarily large blast.

O'BRIEN: Walt, could you hold it right there for just a moment? Because on that very point, CNN's Mike Brooks has been on the phone with his sources, and he has a little bit of additional information on what is the early stages of a forensics investigation here as to whether this might have been a car bomb.

Mike, what do you know?

MIKE BROOKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Again, Miles, as you said, it's very, very early in investigation, but my law enforcement sources told me they've spoke within their people there, the FBI agents on the ground in Iraq. They say that it is a large vehicle bomb, it's still very early in the investigation, to tell exactly how big that vehicle bomb is. As soon as the scene is secured, investigators will get there, and I can tell you from my personal experience, as soon as they do get there, they'll try to determine how the bomb was delivered, whether it was a car or a small truck, large truck. They'll take initial swabbings to see exactly what type of explosive that may have been used in the bomb, but we've seen a number of different types of explosives used in bombs in Iraq so far.

Miles, so far we've seen your ordinary high explosives, as well as military ones, but they'll be able to tell that initially in their investigation, and then get in, start collecting evidence, and try to piece the bomb back together to see exactly what kind of bomb it was, and to see if there's any other links with similar bombs and similar bombings that they've had in Iraq over the recent months.

O'BRIEN: CNN's Mike brooks, who was busy on the phone today talking to his sources. He was very instrumental in the investigation into the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia some years ago.

Walt, sorry to have interrupted you. Let's pick up on the point where we left off there on the car bomb issue and the investigation. The FBI will play a role. Will the Iraqis also be significant players and working together with the FBI on this?

RODGERS: Well, perhaps to a lesser degree, Miles, but remember, the United States is the occupying authority in Iraq, and under international law, the United States is responsible for the security of Iraq, and that means the security of the Iraqi people, and there was a big gap, a hole in that security this evening.

This was a hotel, by the way, where British and American businessmen occasionally stay, although most of the guests and the residents of that hotel tend to be businessmen from the Gulf Arab states.

We were told earlier this evening there were some American casualties. Sadly, we cannot be more specific than that.

As for the forensics of the nature of the vehicular bomb which I was describing, the Army says it was 1,000 pounds of explosives. That's very, very big. Half a mile away, the ground shook and windows rattled. We knew the second we heard it at 10 minutes past eight in Baghdad this evening, we knew there was trouble, and of course, that has been borne out by the events of the evening -- Miles. O'BRIEN: CNN's Walt Rodgers live from Baghdad. And as he has been all throughout these two hours and 30 minutes now since this bomb blast occurred in the Karrada district -- Kyra.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Well, as we told you early on in the coverage, our Aaron Brown has been traveling throughout the region. As a matter of fact, just left Iraq yesterday. He's now in Islamabad, Pakistan. He had a chance to spend time with the commander of the U.S. Central Command, General John Abizaid. He's also been spending some time with Secretary of State Colin Powell as he travels through the region. Aaron, as things have progressed, you and I talked about an hour and a half ago, have you had a chance to talk with the general or the secretary of state? Bring us up to date on where you stand right now.

AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: Well, we would make a couple of observations based on the reporting that we've seen. No. 1, the reporting coming out of Iraq is that most of the victims, most are Iraqis. That's a clue as to who may well be responsible for this.

When you look at the makeup of the bad guys in Iraq right now, the former Ba'athist as one element have tended to target Westerners, Americans, American soldiers, NGOs, as in the incident in Mosul yesterday where the Baptist missionaries.

The classic terrorist types, the Zarqawi group, has tended to go for this sort of large scale attack on Iraqis themselves. It is in the view of most American military intelligence people that the former Ba'athists will not target other Iraqis. But the al Qaeda-affiliated groups that are operating in Iraq will.

If the reporting, as we know it now, bears out, that most of the dead and injured are, in fact, Iraqis, that is a very clear sign that it is an al Qaeda-affiliated group. And when we say affiliated, because that's precisely what it is.

Zarqawi is, in General Abizaid's view, a madman. This is a madman kind of killing. He's a sophisticated enough terrorist with a sophisticated enough network to put together something like this.

We are not saying that is what happened, but we are saying that those are really good clues as to what has happened.

PHILLIPS: And, Aaron, there's been, you know talk now about a number of civilians that have been killed in this explosion. And as you know, the recent attacks on civilians in the past week, the Europeans that were traveling, killed by a drive-by shooting, the missionaries that were killed in a drive-by shooting. And now we're being told civilians were killed in this explosion, actual families living in homes, you know, around this hotel.

So the pattern seems to be -- or the pattern of killing is sort of making a drastic shift.

BROWN: Well, Kyra, I would honestly say a little bit yes and a little bit no to that. I believe, based on my reporting over the last several days, that the attacks on small groups of civilians, the missionaries, the NGOs, is probably separate from this sort of attack.

This is attack is much more the fingerprint of what we saw a little bit more than a week ago now in the Muslim holiday of Ashura, the car bombing that went off in the Shi'ite community to the south.

And again, just for viewers who are just coming in, it is the belief of American intelligence that the al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists who are working in the area believe they have to pull off these big terrorist attacks. Not what the military refers to as the onesies and twosies, but the big one to try to create enough chaos in the lead to civil war before turnover of sovereignty on June 30.

That's is just a couple of months away. So it has been the view the of the American military and their intelligence people that we were going to see these sorts of big incidents carried out by people not of the former regime but more al Qaeda-like terrorist groups.

This is speculation, this is the kind of fingerprints we saw in the Karbala bombing of a week or ten days ago. Not the kind of incident we saw with the Baptist ministers and German NGOs yesterday.

PHILLIPS: Aaron, you sat down with General John Abizaid, had a one on one. We're going to play a clip with that and talk more about that. Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID, CENTCOM COMMANDER: Over the next 30 days, what makes me the most nervous is what I think is going to be a clear increase in violence by those that want to derail this process.

And I think that because they know they're running out of time every day that Iraqi security institutions get stronger is a day they'll have less and less of an opportunity to gain or to derail the process.

And so it makes me nervous that we're moving into a very intense, political period.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PHILLIPS: Aaron, very interesting. the general pretty much predicted what happened today.

BROWN: And this -- believe me, this prescience of a sort. I mean this is exactly what they had been worried about. They know -- the general is -- can be remarkably candid. He knows that as many Americans, American troops that are in there, as many new, young Iraqi police recruits that are in the city the size of Baghdad, or any city, for goodness sakes, there is a limit to what can be done.

After all, you're talking in this case what seems like a car or a truck, one vehicle in a city of 5.5 million people, that they could move in front of a hotel. It could have been a suicide bombing. It could have been detonated by cell phone or whatever. But there is a limit to the kinds of security that they can provide. And if the bad guys, which are group of bad guys who is responsible for this, has the wherewithal, has the explosives, and clearly they do, and has the sophistication to mount this sort of attack, and it doesn't take a whole lot of sophistication to do it, then they're going to be able to do it.

And for the reasons the general stated he truly believes that if they don't derail the process by the 30th of June, they will not be able to derail the process at all.

PHILLIPS: Aaron Brown, traveling in Islamabad, Pakistan, just recently in Iraq sitting with General John Abizaid, head of U.S. Central Command. Also spending time with the Secretary of State Colin Powell. Aaron, thank you for your perspective -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: CNN's Dana Bash has been watching these events unfold from the White House. Earlier the White House spokesman Scott McClellan was out saying that essentially the administration is sticking to its course, redoubling its efforts, if you will. CNN's Dana Bash joins us now with more on that -- Dana.

DANA BASH, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Scott McClellan also came out saying the president was briefed shortly after this blast happened and is expected to be continuously briefed throughout the day.

Now McClellan also called this a time of testing in Iraq, something that we just heard from General Abizaid, essentially. But he said that the terrorists will not prevail. He said democracy is taking root in Iraq, and there is no turning back.

Now, this, of course, comes as we've been talking about it on the air all afternoon, during the week, that the administration in Iraq essentially is marking the year anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq. And the administration has been doing so with a series of speeches planned today with the first by Vice President Dick Cheney in Los Angeles.

He talked about the fact that certainly this is a time of testing, as we heard from the White House, but the administration in the United States will not give up on the resolve.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We still have work to do in Iraq, and we will see it through. Our forces are conducting swift precision raids against the terrorists and the regime holdouts who still remain. The thugs and assassins in Iraq are desperately trying to shake our will. Just this morning, they conducted a murderous attack on a hotel in Baghdad.

Their goal is to prevent the rice of democracy, but they will fail.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BASH: Miles, Vice President Cheney's speech was intended to and really did still talk about the fact that he believes the administration believes that the president has done right by going ahead and toppling Saddam Hussein, talking about the good news, that they have seen in Iraq. The fact that Saddam Hussein is no longer in charge, that you see democracy taking hold no matter what we see with these terrorist attacks.

It's also important to note that Dick Cheney continued to go ahead with what was planned as an attack on terms of domestic politics. He went after Senator John Kerry on the issue of Iraq. Essentially saying that John Kerry may not be the person -- that is the right person in charge of the American military forces that the time because he has waffled on issues like Iraq. And they're standing by the fact it was the right thing to do to go into Iraq and they're going to continue to mark this year anniversary this week -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Dana, do we expect to hear from the president later today?

BASH: That's a good question. We don't know the answer to that yet. At this point, no. At this point, we've just heard from the spokesman. They're trying to get the details as to what exactly, who exactly is behind this at this point. We are not expecting to hear from the president but we'll certainly let you know if it changes.

O'BRIEN: CNN's Dana Bash at the White House -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: All right, if you're just tuning in, we are continuing to follow the breaking news out of Baghdad. 8:10 Baghdad time, an explosion, what is now believed to be a car bomb, went off in front of the Mount Lebanon Hotel in Central Baghdad. And not only killing 27 people, but leaving a number of people still beneath the rubble.

Rescue crews responding, both U.S. forces and Iraqi police, Iraqi emergency crews and fire crews still trying to find survivors beneath that rubble. U.S. Army Colonel Ralph Baker there on the scene has been talking to us a lot as this story has been developing and keeping us updated on the situation. This is what he had to say just a few minutes ago about the scene there in Baghdad.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COL. RALPH BAKER, U.S. ARMY SPOKESMAN: ... precautions can you take in terms of defensive measures. And there are proactive activities that both the Iraqi police, the ICDC and the coalition forces take to try to determine where these car bombs are being manufactured and who is behind them.

But it takes a lot of work and it's not an exact science.

QUESTION: General, is this a suicide bomb?

BAKER: We don't know at this time. We don't know.

QUESTION: How many are the injured (OFF-MIKE), Colonel? BAKER: We think there are 27 killed right now and about 40 wounded.

QUESTION: Do you know how many of those were foreigners and how many were Iraqis, General (sic)?

BAKER: No way to tell right now. Colonel.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

BAKER: Right now, they are putting fires out. They are sifting through the rubble, looking for any survivors. They're trying to account for anyone who has been killed. And we're trying to push the perimeter back a little bit and get a little space for the emergency crews to come in here.

I would also like to commend at this time the Iraqi security forces, the police, the fire department who were on the scene immediately and have been instrumental in saving many lives.

QUESTION: Do you think there are people still trapped underneath there?

BAKER: It's difficult to tell right now. Thank you.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PHILLIPS: Once again, Colonel Ralph Baker, U.S. Army there on the streets of Baghdad. Right next to where this explosion took place.

Also following this story with us, our security analyst Kelly McCann. Kelly, you have even been to this area, this actual hotel. Has there -- what's the security like in that area and around that hotel in those family quarters surrounding that hotel?

KELLY MCCANN, CNN SECURITY ANALYST: Kyra, there was no security at that hotel. There were a couple of local armed guards that were contracted by the security manager, but there were no t-barriers no, bomb blast mitigation, no vehicle access control.

The proprietor basically wanted to follow the philosophy if he had a low profile and if people knew that it was a multicultural occupancy, that they were left less likely to be targeted. I mean a lot of the people who stayed at the hotel were Gulf-region businessmen trying to get a foothold of business in Baghdad. And a smattering of Western, smaller contract concerns.

So -- in fact, two of my friends were staying there. I don't know whether they were involved in this bombing or not. But it didn't have the same level of security that you find at a lot of the larger hotels -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: Why would that be? You would think in this environment, at this time especially owe tells were civilians are staying, people that are, you know, coming into the country to work on rebuilding Iraq, why would there be no security?

MCCANN: I don't want to sound crass but the bottom line, it is a business, and that business runs off the bottom line. And a lot of people in that area that have streetfront hotels simply can't afford to have construction machinery come in and erect the t-barriers, don't have the money to pay local national guards to do any vehicle inspections. They don't know how to coordinate with the CPA or any of the government authorities to change traffic patterns.

That particular hotel is right off a traffic circle. It's very, very open to the public. So it would have to be some funneling of traffic. Again, it's not a great wonder that it was targeted -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: Colonel Ralph Baker with the Army, when he gave us an interview, he was talking about these car bombs, Kelly. And saying that what they've got to do is they've got to find out where these are being manufactured. That there are areas there in Iraq where these are being made and these plans are being devised.

From what you know, has that at all been broken into? Have any type of factories or homes where the car bombs are being constructed with old military devices, has any progress been made to decrease the potential threat of more bombings like this?

MCCANN: Weekly. I mean virtually weekly there are raids conducted on the vast number of industrial centers, where stolen buses, stolen ambulances, stolen trucks are chopped up to be made into rocket launchers, where they're made into vehicle-born improvised explosive devices or VBIEDs. Those kinds of raids are conducted weekly.

However, people have to realize -- and I think that this is lost on a lot of people going to Iraq -- is it is one of the most sophisticated, serious security environments in the world. And I mean that wholeheartedly because of the number of different factions that could target you.

Recently, we were informed that there were opportunistic vehicle- borne improvised explosive devices, people who had explosives in the car would have a target list of four to five targets. And would basically troll the streets looking for that opportunity or that vulnerability where they could then deliver the device and explode it.

Now you don't even have a situation where one vehicle targets one place. You'd have one vehicle that has a random kind of five or six targets that they can choose at will. So it's a very sophisticated environment, Kyra.

PHILLIPS: So as June approaches, this handover is supposed to take place. The hope is to have an Iraqi institution, obviously a stronger Iraqi institution means that hopefully, it means that terrorism, terrorists, these terrorist organizations get weaker.

All of our analysts coming on today have talked about this was expected. Even General Abizaid saying this is what he expected because civil war, complete chaos before a handover is exactly what these terrorists want to try to derail the process of advancing democracy.

So No. 1, is it possible that that handover can still happen in June? But from what you know, from a security aspect you've been there. You've been helping to train these details and these police officers. Will this derail the process?

MCCANN: Let me first say something fairly politically incorrect, which is policy doesn't undo these kind of events. And that's a huge misunderstanding. You can have any kind of constitution you want.

But until you can enforce that constitution, it's meaningless to your attackers. And you can write any kind of document you want. You can stamp your feet. And it just makes seriously no difference.

The bottom line is the community level of policing, the international police monitors going in there with their Iraqi counterparts, getting the trust of the Iraqi people so that they'll inform on some of these people who don't belong, or seen as interlopers and outsiders so it becomes actionable and they can raid those places.

And then continuing American presence. Now, it's the American presence is, of course, problematic. But to withdraw -- a complete withdrawal of American forces is simply not the answer.

It's also not the answer to hand over an American philosophy just yet to a U.N. peacekeeping force because they're at odds in philosophy. Right now, stability really depends on a continued hard presence -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: Well, you make the point about the Iraqis basically being strong enough to take over, you know, dealing with terrorist attacks like this. I mean, that was one thing that the colonel had said is that the Iraqi fire department, the Iraqi police, they were a lot more responding this time. That the U.S. forces wanted to back away and let the Iraqis handle this themselves.

As you look at the way this has been handled, how it's being handled, what do you think? How are they doing? How are the new Iraqi forces doing by assessing and attacking the situation?

MCCANN: Well, they're light years ahead, but the population is still confused. If you watch the ground footage, initially the Iraqi people shooed away the American soldiers, even though they were going to help because they're caught between the feeling that they blame the Americans for all of the discontent and disquiet their in the country.

But also they know they can't totally rely on their own. It's a very, very difficult situation, but they are light years ahead of where they were just after the war. I mean, you can see just by the sheer volume of ambulances, the sheer volume of police officers on the street, the way they cordoned the area, the way they work with the U.S. Army counterparts. They are seriously ahead in coordination of these kinds of events.

And they're very confusing. I mean you got to out up an inner perimeter, you've got to put up an outer perimeter, you have to have ease of access in for emergency personnel and ease of access out. You have the problem of perhaps secondary explosions. You may have shooters in the crowd.

So it's very, very problematic. Couple that have nighttime where there's a problem with (UNINTELLIGIBLE) an coordination. I tell you, you've got a real soup sandwich -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: Our security analyst, Kelly McCann. Thanks so much, Kelly.

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