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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Deaths, Injuries in Baghdad Explosion Climb

Aired March 17, 2004 - 14:08   ET

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

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: CNN's Jane Arraf has been on the scene almost since the very outset. She is still there sorting all of this out for us. While we've been talking there's a report which came across from reuters indicating that some U.S. civilians were at least wounded in that hotel blast. That, according to a U.S. military officer at the scene.
I don't know if Jane has in a ditional information on that. But, Jane, won't don't you bring us up to date on what you're seeing right now.

JANE ARRAF, CNN BAGHDAD BUREAU CHIEF: Yes, go ahead.

O'BRIEN: Jane Arraf, can you hear me? CNN's Jane Arraf, as we said, has been on the scene of this incident -- it's been about two years. Jane arraf, do you hear Atlanta?

ARRAF: Yes, I certainly can. Is this Miles?

O'BRIEN: Yes, Jane. What I was trying to tell our viewers is that you've been on the scene since the very outset of this, and we have gotten a report while we've been touching all of the bases.

Here that indicate some U.S. civilians might have been wounded in this attack, this coming from Reuters and they're quoting a U.S. military officer at the scene there.

I don't know if you know anything about that specifically but if you could just bring us up-to-date on what you see at the scene right now, that would help.

ARRAF: Miles (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Colonel Ralph Baker is in front of us. He's had no reports as far as U.S. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) we have this amazing scene unfolding in front of us. This is Colonel Ralph Baker.

COL. RALPH BAKER, U.S. ARMY SPOKESMAN: Good evening, Colonel Baker here.

O'BRIEN: Colonel Baker, what can you tell us? First of all, have you -- about the number of casualties on the scene? Have you been able to tally it? I imagine you're rather busy to be taking a count, but can you give us a sense of it?

BAKER: This is obviously a little confusing right now. We've confirmed anywhere between 30 and 40 injured Iraqis and we've had -- we've had estimates of anywhere from five to 27 that are killed right now so we're trying to -- we're trying to get a better figure but at this time due to the nature of the explosion and the rubble and the confusion it's a little difficult to get a good, accurate count.

O'BRIEN: Colonel, there is a report from the Reuter's news service right now, which indicates there might have been some U.S. civilians wounded in this. Do you know anything about that?

BAKER: We don't have any information to corroborate that story. What we do know is that there were foreigners that live in a hotel next to where this bomb exploded and so we're trying to determine what country they were from.

O'BRIEN: Tell us a little bit. I assume you're at least in the initial stages of a forensic investigation here. What can you tell us about this explosion, perhaps the type of explosive device that was used?

BAKER: Well, what I can tell you is that the crater, based upon crater analysis it was a car bomb probably with about 1,000, at least 1,000 pounds of explosives. Typically they use an explosive, a plastic explosive called PD4 for these types of car attacks.

O'BRIEN: OK and do you have any reason to believe it was a suicide attack or was it remotely detonated?

BAKER: We can't tell at this time. There's no remains that we can tell that were associated with the vehicle when it exploded but obviously with that much explosives it would not be unusual not to find somebody.

We're interviewing Iraqi witnesses at this time trying to determine if the vehicle was moving when it went off or it had been parked. It will take us a while to work our way through the crowd and figure that out.

O'BRIEN: The amount of explosive that you mention, it cut out for just a moment there, I think you said in excess of 1,000 pounds. That's a significantly -- it's a big bomb, isn't it?

BAKER: It's a large bomb. We've seen vehicle bombs in the range of about 500 pounds to 1,200 pounds here in the city of Baghdad, so it's a large bomb but it's not -- it's not unusual in terms of how much they pack in the vehicles.

O'BRIEN: And can you tell just from looking at the debris field there where precisely that vehicle was? Had it pulled up right beside the hotel? Was it in the middle of the street, that sort of thing?

BAKER: The vehicle was essentially in the middle of the street, perhaps offset to the east a little bit. It's difficult to tell if it was driving down the street or if it was parked at the time that it went off.

O'BRIEN: And in addition to this five-story hotel, we're told there were other buildings damaged. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

BAKER: Yes, I can. There are two family residences on the other side across the street from the hotel and from what we can tell most of the people who were killed lived in these family residences.

The CNN news crew on the scene right now is filming the recovery effort as the Iraqi security forces and emergency workers are sifting through the rubble trying to find any remaining survivors or further injuries.

O'BRIEN: Help us clarify that point if you would. Most of the fatalities were in the surrounding family residences as opposed to the hotel. Why would that be?

BAKER: Well, you've got to appreciate the different parts of Baghdad and some of the areas are fairly, very urban and densely populated. This is a -- we're on a very narrow street with a lot of apartment buildings, a couple small homes and then a hotel right across the street, so it's just a very tight area in the city and vulnerable obviously to a car bomb (unintelligible).

O'BRIEN: So perhaps we are being somewhat presumptuous when we lead our viewers to believe that this hotel might have been a target specifically.

BAKER: We don't know what the target is right now. We just know that this car bomb exploded next to a hotel. We know that this hotel caters to foreigners. We also know across the street were two family homes.

O'BRIEN: Tell us a little bit about the scene there right now and the rescue and recovery effort. What's going on right now? Is there a likelihood that there are people alive underneath that rubble right now?

BAKER: OK. Well, what's going on right now is you have the Iraqi fire department and emergency services, along with Iraqi police and their Civil Defense Corps who have secured the area, have distinguished the fires, have evacuated the injured and are now in the process of trying to find any survivors that may still be in the rubble.

I would tell you that the Iraqi Emergency Services was extremely responsive to this incident and has acted in a very professional manner and with quite a lot of bravery and disregard for their own safety they've tried to save the citizens of Baghdad.

O'BRIEN: There have been repeated reports of hostility focused toward U.S. troops and other westerners who happened upon the scene. Have you witnessed that and, if so, are U.S. troops pulling back from the scene?

BAKER: I haven't witnessed hostility directed towards the coalition forces here at the scene or towards Iraqi security forces. What you do see are many upset citizens who may have lost people that they love or are distraught over yet another senseless killing and bombing by a terrorist organization. It's easy to mistake that perhaps for anger directed at the security forces but I don't believe that. O'BRIEN: Colonel Ralph Baker there on the scene thank you very much for shedding a lot of light on what's gone on there. Colonel Ralph Baker of the United States Army 1st Armored Division -- Kyra.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: If you're just tuning in now, we're continuing to follow the breaking news out of Baghdad, a powerful explosion apparently from a car bomb that being confirmed there by one of the U.S. Army's colonels there on the scene, Colonel Ralph Baker.

It went off in the Karada (ph) district of central Baghdad at 8:10 Baghdad time, virtually destroying the Mount Lebanon Hotel and, as the colonel was saying, a number of family residences around that hotel, also damaging a number of offices nearby.

Right now the number being reported is 27 dead as rescue crews continue to respond to the scene and try and find survivors underneath the rubble. As you can imagine, this is being talked quite a bit about at the Pentagon.

Our Barbara Starr standing by as we look at new video actually. We're just getting this video in outside of Baghdad. This is when the initial explosion took place. You can still see the remnants and the fire that's taking place there in the district, the Karada district, a very busy area, city area at the time that this explosion took place.

The blast also we are being told leaving about a 20-foot crater in the street here in front of these buildings as the hotel that we're looking at erupted into fire. Other people still digging beneath this rubble looking for survivors in a blast, believed to be caused from a car bomb, taking the lives so far of 27 people.

Now to the Pentagon, our Barbara Starr standing by following what's happening there, Barbara how is the Pentagon responding? What's the talk there among leaders with regard to how they plan to respond to this and address security?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kyra, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld apparently saying just a few minutes ago information is still coming in of course here. They are watching the television very closely. They do not know, of course, who is responsible and they don't have very many details about it yet.

But the statement just a little while ago by White House Spokesman Scott McClellan was perhaps very instructive. He said that the terrorists in Iraq know just how high the stakes are right now, of course referring to the fact that the United States and the coalition plans to hand over sovereignty essentially to the Iraqis on June 30th, just 14 weeks from now.

The problem, of course, there is no Iraqi government to hand sovereignty over to. No final decision at this point on the shape of that Iraqi government or exactly how the handover will happen.

The feeling is then because of this uncertainty this time frame between now and June 30th will be potentially one of great violence and uncertainty in Iraq because the terrorists, because the insurgents may try and take advantage of this current situation and continue to attack some of these civilian targets.

You know we've been talking about them as soft targets, if you will, but quite bluntly these are civilian targets that are being struck. This hotel attack today, this attack in Baghdad just the latest one. This is not something that is surprising officials. They are not happy about it, of course.

Some of the video that we're watching is perhaps very instructive about what is going on in Baghdad when these attacks occur. Baghdad is an area that is overseen by the 1st Armored Division but what they've been trying to do in Baghdad and other places when there are terrorist attacks is let Iraqi security forces respond first, Iraqi police, Iraqi civil defense, Iraqi fire and emergency services.

That happened in this case but, again, U.S. forces, we believe from the 1st Armored Division, we've seen their pictures on TV, moved in very quickly to help secure the area, an indication of just how massive this attack was and, although they got a difficult reaction from the Iraqis on the scene, what U.S. forces do in these cases is they try and assist by establishing a perimeter, establishing security and letting the Iraqi security forces you see attempt to do their work.

This is the trend. This is the security initiative now in Iraq to let these Iraqi security forces move in. But I must tell you, U.S. military officials that we have spoken to both here in Washington and in Baghdad still express a great deal of concern that the Iraqi forces are fully trained, fully equipped that they have all the tools they need to respond when these incidents occur. And so, U.S. forces do respond. They try and help. They try and help with security.

In Baghdad now the goal for the next couple of months is to try and reduce the U.S. military footprint, step back a bit, step out to the perimeter of the city and let these Iraqi security forces take over but this attack again today in Baghdad showing that is a very difficult proposition.

The Iraqi security forces very significantly moving in but perhaps not having the capability to really establish full security in all of the sites in Baghdad. It's something that, of course, would be impossible to do and it requires many officials believe, a continued U.S. military presence as we have seen today -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: Barbara Starr, you bring up a very interesting point because while interviewing Colonel Ralph Baker with the U.S. Army there in Baghdad, I noticed how he kept saying Iraqi police, Iraqi fire department. He put a lot of emphasis on the Iraqis and the response teams from the Iraqi side.

And I asked him is this the first major situation where they have sort of backed off and let the Iraqis come in and try and deal and he said, yes absolutely. This is the biggest one yet, obviously still needing -- there is a need for U.S. help, U.S. forces to step in.

So my question to you is while we see these pictures and we see an explosion like this happen, we still continue to talk about advancing democracy there in Iraq, U.S. forces, and rebuilding Iraq but you also see that the insurgent growth continues and now the attack on civilians. Is it possible that that handover just may not take place in June?

STARR: That is becoming the key question, Kyra, to which there is quite candidly not a solid answer. We have seen today the U.N. envoy, Mr. Brahimi, working to try and establish a framework to try and get the United Nations back into Iraq to work on this very key question, the Shiite leader Ayatollah Sistani and the Shiites still wanting some participation in the decision making for a new Iraqi government.

One of the key issues that is emerging quite under the radar screen right now is the Iraq Governing Council. That at the moment is really the only formal structure of Iraqi government at the top that exists and, if that remains -- many officials believe if it is the Iraqi Governing Council as we move through this 12, 14 week period ahead, if that remains the only structure that really exists, will the coalition simply have no option but basically to transition government on June 30th to the Iraqi Governing Council?

It wasn't what they anticipated. They wanted, as you know, to have a series of very complex caucuses across the country to begin to establish a transitional government and then move to elections but the Shiites, of course, raised significant objections to that.

It became extremely difficult, especially as these violent attacks continued, as there was unrest in various parts of the country and, as we know, that al Qaeda-related operative Zarqawi certainly has his letter, which lays out his mission, officials believe, to start a civil war in Iraq between the Shia and the Sunni before this June 30th transition takes place.

The insurgents feel the next 12 to 14 weeks is their key time frame to get their agenda, which would be coalition failure, to get their agenda on the table. The coalition knows this and, of course, is making every move it can to ensure security across Iraq to ensure that that does not happen. But even the top officials from Secretary Rumsfeld on down will tell you there is no way to defend against every attack anywhere in Iraq.

PHILLIPS: Our Barbara Starr live from the Pentagon, thanks Barbara.

Let's talk about that. Let's bring up some of the points that Barbara has stated. Let's bring in Fawaz Gerges from Sarah Lawrence College, of course, one of our experts on Middle East studies.

Fawaz, let's talk about that point that Barbara made about, you know, what we're seeing here as we continue to look at this new video coming in from Baghdad since the explosion. Is this a civil war starting to break out prior to a new Iraqi government so that certain groups can get their agenda on the table?

FAWAZ GERGES, SARAH LAWRENCE COLLEGE: Kyra, this is a very good point. I think one point must be made very clear here is that progress competes with chaos in Iraq. One year after the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Iraq remains highly volatile and Iraq is deeply divided over the future, the political future of their country.

And, as we know, from what has happened today and what has happened in the last few months, I think the armed insurgency which has claimed hundreds of American and Iraqi lives, let's remember hundreds of Iraqis have been killed in the last two months, including dozens today, I think the insurgency does not seem to be, I mean basically receding.

On the contrary, I just returned from the Middle East yesterday and I met with dozens of Iraqis, academics, politicians, activists, and I think the version in Iraq, the official version in Washington you have two narratives here.

Our version in Washington says that most of the attacks are launched by al Qaeda's affiliates like Zarqawi and his man or loyalists of Saddam Hussein. Well, let's look at it, Kyra.

Saddam Hussein has been captured. His two sons were killed. More than 10,000 Iraqis allegedly involved in armed resistance are incarcerated and yet the insurgency continues and I think what we need to understand here is that I think there is an official what I call a mind set in Washington, an official mind set that does not take into account harsh unpleasant realities in Iraq and, of course, the law of unintended consequences.

And, yes, I think the various insurgents in Iraq are trying to slow this order. They're trying to make Iraq ungovernable and they are realizing that the Iraqi people are deeply divided over their country.

I mean the Iraqi Governing Council let's look at the interim constitution. Yes, it represents a major first step on the goal on the road to institutional building but there is a major disagreement between on the one hand the Shiite leaders and the rest of the Iraqi communities.

And it seems to me here, to answer your question directly now, is that I doubt it very much if the United States can really pull out effectively out of Iraq by the end of June unless realities on the ground change dramatically, unless the U.S. occupying force is replaced by a United Nations multilateral force and unless a legitimate Iraqi government is established, which is very much unlikely because the Iraqi Governing Council is not perceived to be as legitimate by most Iraqis.

And the question to you, Kyra is and to our audience, who will select the new members of the Iraqi Governing Council that is if you want to expand the council? Of course much progress has been achieved.

Let's remember the infrastructure is being repaired. Let's remember that the interim constitution it represents a major impressive achievement but yet much remains to be done and accepted electoral law. Secondly, of course, you need and Iraqis are divided on the, you might say, who gets what in terms of power transition and, thirdly, the need to integrate the Sunni community.

One point, Kyra, I need to stress here after I returned from, I mean I got to the Middle East quite often, is that the Sunni community now envisionist Iraqi Islamists are leading the fight in Iraq and unless the Sunni community is reassured and integrated, and unfortunately, the insurgency will continue, and I doubt it very much whether democracy could, you might say, grow deep roots in Iraq in the next few months or the next year or so.

PHILLIPS: So, Fawaz, let me ask you this, listening to what you have to say, you were talking about the whole intellectual side of what's taking place here in Iraq, and that you met with these leaders and met with these lawyers, and these educated people of Iraq, and talking about building a diverse and fair government, yet we're talking about this over these pictures, acts of terrorism. I mean, we're talking about...

GERGES: Yes.

PHILLIPS: Cowardly people committing these crimes with absolute no respect for human life.

GERGES: Absolutely.

PHILLIPS: These aren't political activists wanting a diverse and fair government. I mean, these are terrorists that need to be ridded out of Iraq, right?

GERGES: Kyra, you have here, as I said, you have different factions now basically launching attacks against American forces, against Iraqi police, against civilians, and yes, there is a terrorist element. I mean, the goal behind such attacks, as I said, is to sow disorder and make Iraq ungovernable. The question is, how do you regain the trust of the Iraqi people? How do you retrieve the Iraqi project. Unfortunately, Kyra, here -- and this is common sense -- there's a great deal of mistrust of the American intentions in Iraq, even though most of Iraqis were delighted to get rid of their dictator, and this is why -- regardless of whether the United States could effectively pull out of Iraq at the end of June, which is not unlikely, it's essential that the United Nations takes a charge of the Iraqi project, that the United Nations becomes actively engaged.

Because, Kyra, most Iraqis have trust in the United Nations to act as a fair referee, and in this particular sense, I think the Bush administration, to its credit, seems to be moving in this particular direction, to bring in the United Nations, to give the United Nations a vital, critical substantive role in Iraq, and I think let's remember, too, there are positive elements, positive aspects taking place in Iraq. The involvement of the United Nations is highly important, not just for American interests, vital interests, and not only to enable American soldiers to come home, but also for the security and stability of Iraq and Iraqis as well. PHILLIPS: Fawaz, good point, and even looking at these horrific pictures and seeing what's taking place in Iraq, you're still seeing a brave Iraqi police force.

GERGES: Absolutely.

PHILLIPS: A fire department trying to respond...

GERGES: Yes.

PHILLIPS: ... and take part in what's taking place.

GERGES: And, Kyra...

PHILLIPS: And not sitting back and just counting on U.S. forces.

GERGES: And, Kyra, let's remember, that despite the war, despite the destruction, despite the killings of Iraqi civilians, in particular Kurds and Shiites, Iraqis have shown maturity and restraint, and I think Iraqis have proved some of us, some of us who are doomsdayers, not to plunge into the brink of civil war. And so in this particular sense, let's not lose sight of the big picture. Yes, there's chaos, yes, there's terrorism, yes, there's armed resistance, but the Iraqi communities have shown strength, maturity and willingness not to plunge into civil war.

Let's hope that the United Nations becomes deeply involved, and this is for the sake of the United States and the Iraqis as well.

PHILLIPS: Point well made, Fawas Gerges, Sarah Lawrence College, one of our experts there in Middle East studies. Fawas, Thank you so much.

GERGES: My pleasure.

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