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27 Dead, More Than 40 Injured in Baghdad Bombing

Aired March 17, 2004 - 15:00   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: And let's go right now to live to CNN's Jane Arraf, who is right on the scene there and has been reporting almost from the very moment this bombing occurred now.
Jane, what can you tell us now?

JANE ARRAF, CNN BAGHDAD BUREAU CHIEF: Miles, the death toll so far, 27 dead, more than 40 injured.

And we've just spoken to the managing director of the hotel, this decimated hotel, across the street, who tells us that among the dead there were nine guests in the hotel, most of them Arab guests, but two British citizens he believes may have perished in what U.S. officials are calling a suicide bombing, and a massive one.

As you mentioned, there is a huge crater here, eight feet by 10 feet. And U.S. military officials on the screen tell us that it looks as if 1,000 pounds of explosives were used. Now, behind me, they're trying to find out whether there may be anyone still trapped beneath this rubble, as unbelievable as it might be. The fire chief here we have spoken to just a short while ago tells us that in hospital not far from here, a man says that his wife and three children may be still beneath his very earth in the remains of his home.

You can see in front of me, Miles, Iraqi fire people, Iraqi civil defense workers, and a variety of workers. There's the Iraqi fire chief for the region digging frantically to see if they can recover anyone from that rubble. U.S. officials say, if they do find anyone, it's very unlikely that they would have survived this -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Jane, I wonder if you could just continue setting the scene for us there, continue that pan, and just give us a sense of what else is going on all around you there.

ARRAF: Miles, we're starting here with perhaps the building that bore part of the worst part of the brunt of this car bomb. We're in the middle of the street, essentially.

According to the U.S. military officials on the site, Colonel Ralph Baker, the commander here at the moment, he says it appears now that it was a moving car, indicating that it was a suicide bomb, as opposed to a car that was detonated. Now, that would have detonated very close to here, just in the middle of the street.

Miles, we're just looking at some commotion here, where they may have found someone or believe they may have found someone. This has been going on, though, now for almost two hours. They started with pick axes and moved to their bare hands. It looks as if they are digging with their hands again, trying to find what perhaps may be a woman and her three children buried there, according to someone in hospital.

Now, the scene just a while after the explosion, and the explosion is not far from the hotel where we and other journalists as well as U.S. contractors say really was like a vision of hell, Miles. There were flames burning everywhere, including this building. As the timbers were burning, rescue workers were trying to fling them aside, trying to find the people still trapped here.

There are U.S. military on the site. There are U.S. security -- I'm sorry -- Iraqi security forces and a fair bit of chaos, still, even though the area has essentially been cleared. This is the third car bomb in this area and U.S. officials say it bears the hallmarks of a group of foreign fighter in the way it appears to have been conducted -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Jane, help us understand. We're looking, as you say, the possibility here that a woman and her children might be beneath that rubble. Is this a residential building that was near the hotel? Is this a hotel? Indeed, have you been able to tally how many buildings might have been affected?

ARRAF: Miles, it looks as if there were at least several buildings affected.

And we're just going to try to find out for you now what exactly is happening, because people here have gathered around something, and they are invoking the name of God, indicating they may have found somebody in there. We are going to find out for you in just as soon as we can, Miles, but this is one of the most badly affected places.

Obviously, this house essentially collapsed. I'm just wondering whether we can move the camera any further in to show you what exactly they might be looking at. We are going to try that a little bit later. But, in the meantime, Miles, they have gathered around. And here, if we could bring in the fire chief for this region.

Sir, what have we found?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They found now a person in the rubble.

ARRAF: Who do you think that person might be?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Maybe a man or a woman. I don't know. But the workers do -- take him up now. They see is (INAUDIBLE) now. They work to take him out.

ARRAF: Is there any possibility that person is alive?


ARRAF: Do you think anyone here is left alive?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, I don't think he's alive. (INAUDIBLE)

ARRAF: Why do you think someone would have set off a bomb like this on a street like this? Why do you think this attack happened on this street?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't know what you're saying.

ARRAF: You know this area very well. You know this street.


ARRAF: Why do you think they did this?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Because they tell you that they do that because they want to kill all Iraqi people. They want to stop the freedom and normality in Iraq.

ARRAF: And now, if you could just describe what we are seeing, are they going to bring out someone that they have found there?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He is dead. They work to take him out. They bring the blanket to cover him to take him hospital.

ARRAF: And will you keep looking for people here?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, we will work until we finish everything to see that there is no one here. We will still look. If I see anything, I will come back to tell you.

ARRAF: Thank you very much. We would appreciate that, if you would.

Miles, that was Lieutenant Colonel Lafias Abbas (ph), who is the fire chief for this region. And I'm not sure if you can see, Miles, but I'm going to describe it to you. There are people on their hands and knees who are sifting through the dirt. Now, this is dirt that has been covered by bricks, by fallen girders, metal beams, iron beams. And now, as we have just heard from the fire chief, they are bringing out what sadly appears to be a body.

Miles, this may be the body of the family that one of the injured in hospital has said -- has appealed to workers to try to find. He has said his wife and three children were in this house. He was taken injured to a hospital. His wife and three children appear to still be here, perhaps buried under that rubble.

O'BRIEN: Jane -- and it really is striking, as you see this, when you consider this woman and her children were probably doing nothing more than simply having supper when all of this happened.

I'm curious. I did not get the sense from your brief conversation with the fire chief that there's much optimism that is being held for finding people alive in the rubble. What is your sense of that?

ARRAF: I think they're being quite realistic. Now, there obviously had been the hope, and there always is the hope whenever something like this happens, something as senseless and tragic as this, that it could, perhaps, be redeemed almost by someone being found alive. And they have been holding out that hope.

But, clearly, when you look at the weight of that dirt, at the weight of those bricks, at the weight of the steel, metal and wood that has collapsed around these people, it's quite clear that it would be really -- and this is not overusing the word -- it would be miraculous if anyone were found alive. That appears to be the consensus now of not just the fire chief, but of U.S. officials here on the scene, as well -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: And as we look at this rather dramatic picture, literally sifting through that debris with their hands, we should point out, CNN's Mike Brooks here with us, reminding us that there are occasions whether earthquakes or whatever the case, where people are found some days later in little air pockets that are created. But, apparently, that's not what we're seeing here, is it, Jane?

ARRAF: This seems to be so densely packed, Miles. And we have to remember that this was a huge bomb. According to the commander on the site, Colonel Ralph Baker, who we see climbing up here to see what was going on, it was 1,000 pounds of explosives.

Now, that by any measure of the imagination is a lot of explosives. And you can see the damage that it did. It not only caused the collapse of this house. It's as if -- it's almost as if it were a doll house. I don't know if you can see this, but the complete side has been torn off. And there is a fan there, the remains of furniture. You can imagine that just a few moments before this bomb, this family would have been in here being a normal family before this huge amount of explosives came hurtling down the street in this car bomb.

And that obviously all changed in seconds. It was a blast so large that it rattled the hotels down the street. Now, these are well protected hotels down the street, ones with concrete barriers and layers of security. The hotel that this exploded in front of was not. It was a new hotel. The managing director who is sitting essentially by himself in the dark just down the street still in shock tells us that the hotel was a year old, that they had had nine guests, and that it had at one point been -- some of the guests had been employees of a mobile phone company, a mobile phone company that had been awarded the contract for mobile phones in Baghdad, under what many business people believe...

COL. RALPH BAKER, U.S. ARMY: ... body out, that you don't cover it on camera. Can you do us that favor?

ARRAF: Miles, we've just heard from Colonel Baker a request that we not show the body being brought out. It will, in fact, be covered by a blanket when it is brought out.

And, obviously, there's no one left alive there, Miles. What we are going to be seeing are recovery operations for the remains of yet more victims here -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: And we certainly not wanting to be in a position to be showing something like that to our audience live anyway. So, certainly, that is a request that we can accede to.

If you could just, Jane, as this is under way here, just give us a little sense of this neighborhood. Why -- if, in fact, this neighborhood was specifically targeted and this bomb didn't go off on the way to somewhere else, why this neighborhood, when it is not identified as either being Sunni or Shia? It's -- both are there and both live side by side.

ARRAF: I think one of the things we have to note, Miles, is that this idea of Sunni-vs.-Shia violence is a relatively recent phenomenon. And we did see it in its most dramatic form, violence on Shias on the Shia holy days in Karbala and in the holy shrine here in Baghdad. But it's not at all certain who was behind that.

And indeed it has not resulted in the explosion of Sunni-on-Shia violence and vice versa that many people had feared. This is a very complicated country, and there are a lot of complicated reasons for these attacks. But one common thread that is woven through particularly these suicide bombs, according to U.S. officials, is that increasingly they seem to be foreign groups, perhaps increasingly working with remnants of the Baath Party, with Saddam loyalists, and with common criminals, joining forces, if you will, to do these large- scale operations.

This is the kind of operation that traditionally is blamed on foreign fighters. And, in fact, a senior military official here is mentioning the name of Ansar al-Islam, a group that has been linked to al Qaeda. That's because, Miles, the way it was carried out, Iraqis have not been known to kill themselves. They just have not had the religious fervor. They don't have a history of it and these suicide bombs are generally thought to be foreigners.

So the Sunni-on-Shia violence not a theory that many people here would ascribe to. In fact, most people would blame it on outsiders.

Miles, we're just now seeing the stretcher brought out. We're not going to be showing you the body by any means, but there's a stretcher here that will be taking whatever victims they find from this rubble to the hospital -- Miles.


O'BRIEN: Jane, could you -- to what extent, though, if we go along this assumption that we're talking about this unholy triumvirate of former Baath Party types, criminals, and perhaps foreign or al Qaeda elements, to what extent have they been able to sow the seeds of dissension between Shias and Sunnis? In other words, are they being successful in trying to create the atmosphere that would cause a civil war?

ARRAF: They've had a slight bit of success, perhaps by increasing the fear that this kind of thing would happen. But, again, one thing that has really struck me in talking to all kinds of people about this is that Iraqis themselves seem to be the last to say that they are in danger of a civil war.

They believe that, if it happened, it would happen because of outsiders. And it would happen because people keep driving home the point, trying to drive wedges between the Sunnis and the Shias. Now, it's not an exaggeration really to say that most Iraqis would tell you that their problem was with Saddam Hussein in the past. Their problem was with neighboring countries, perhaps. Their problems were not with each other. This was not a feature of Iraqi life.

This was not a feature of Iraqi history that the Sunnis and Shias were at war here. And they still on all sides of the equation feel very, very Iraqi. Perhaps one thing most people are united on is the feeling that this violence, these horrendous bombs, particularly the suicide bombs, are being engineered and carried out by outsiders -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: In the past, though, there have been cases where there have been bombings that have been much more targeted at specific groups, at Shias, for example. And are those believed to be the work of other groups, perhaps more indigenous groups, if you will?

ARRAF: It's been a very interesting trend.

And we have to remember that, a year after this war, this insurgency, this resistance, this whatever you want to call it, has really taken different forms. It started off with primarily Baath Party loyalists, with remnants of Saddam's fighters. It started off with rocket-propelled grenade attacks against American troops, who were much more visible in the streets than they are now.

It evolved into something different. It evolved into attacks on Iraqi police, on Iraqi security forces. And they started using homemade bombs, which is still a big feature. They started using bombs with trip wires. And then they started using bombs without trip wires that were set with timers, so that they could run away more quickly. Now we're seeing suicide bombs.

And we have to remember that is a fairly recent phenomenon over the last few months. And it has obviously had the most impact. And those are the ones that are pinned most to foreign fighters, these very dramatic suicide bombings that have, Miles, we have to remember, spared no one. They've hit the Kurds. They've hit the Shias. They've hit the Sunnis. They now appear to have hit ordinary people, 27 people at least, including two British citizens, several Arabs, just ordinary people living in a small out-of-the-way hotel -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: And if there is a common thread in all of that, it creates a general feeling of insecurity, of a lack of safety, and it appears that many Iraqis point the fingers at the U.S. authorities right now, rightly or wrongly.

ARRAF: I think the thing we have to remember, as well, is that when something like this happens, if we could just recall the scene, huge explosion, people running in fear, arguing about whether it's a rocket, whether it's a car bomb. We don't really know anything except there has been a terrible thing that has happened and they might still be in danger.

And in those circumstances, they're perhaps not thinking about as rationally as they normally would. They tend to blame Americans. You're absolutely right. They tend to blame pretty well everybody. These are people, Iraqis in general, who have suffered a lot. They've been through wars. They've been through dictatorship. They've been through sanctions. And they've never really had control of their country before.

Now they do. And I have to say, in many respects, people are lost. They're uncertain what the future is going to bring and they want to blame somebody. The easiest target is blame is generally the United States. They say the U.S. got them into this mess. And although they're grateful, most of them, that Saddam Hussein is gone, that American soldiers got rid of him, they still need somebody to blame, and most of the times, that blame does fall on American military, American soldiers -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: CNN's Jane Arraf there at the scene, as the recovery operation continues of, we think, yet additional fatalities there at the scene.

Currently, we are told at least 27 were killed, 41 wounded in this bomb blast on this narrow street in this part of Baghdad, in central Baghdad, very near a residential hotel -- Kyra.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: As we've been watching the new video come in and as the story has been unfolding, not only have we seen live pictures of U.S. forces responding to this explosion, but also a number of Iraqi fire department officials, Iraqi police officials still with their bare hands trying to dig survivors out and bodies out from beneath this rubble, no doubt an arduous task.

Another tremendous task is taking on the position of a brigadier general in the Iraqi police force during this time just months before power is supposed to be handed over to the Iraqi people.

Brigadier General Thamir Sadoun with the Iraqi police joins us now by telephone.

He's there on scene.

Sir, can you hear me OK?


PHILLIPS: Yes, General Sadoun, you can hear me OK?

SADOUN: Could you please repeat that question? I couldn't get you, please.

PHILLIPS: Yes. We appreciate you being with us.

I want to ask you, first of all, what has happened this evening in your country? Looking at your -- your officers there in the Iraqi police force, are you satisfied with how your officers were able to respond to what happened there in Iraq?

SADOUN: Yes, of course. All of us were there.

It was in a car. There was explosions in this car. It was parked beside the hotel. But the people who died, the number of the people who died, is not more than four people, only four. And the people who are injured are 40, almost 40, 41 people who are injured. But some of them are in a serious way. Their wounds are serious wounds.

And, at the same time, there is a house beside the place. It's completely -- almost completely destroyed. There's a family inside. The police forces, they're trying to get the family from the house out and to help them and to save them from their house, which was destroyed completely.


SADOUN: Iraqi forces and the Iraqi policemen, they are there trying to help the people and trying to avoid any trouble having been caused to them by these terrorists, whom they already claim that they are Muslim. They are not Muslims. Who kill the innocent people, he is not Muslim at all. Who kill the police, he is not Muslim at all.

PHILLIPS: So, General, who do you believe is responsible for this explosion?

SADOUN: Actually, they are terrorists. Most of them, they are foreigners only, not Iraqis, because Iraqis never cause this kind of trouble to their neighbors and to their colleagues and to their friends and to their families. There are never like this kind of accident.

They kill. They kill and kill and kill and continue killing, and innocent people, children, women. Is that Islam? Is that -- any person who can answer this question, is that Islam? What kind of Islam is killing innocent people? Of course, they are not Muslim. They are not Iraqis.


SADOUN: They are not Iraqis, because most of the Iraqis like the way with -- whom they are living with. They like their government. They like their government.

But, of course, there is some of them that opposed to the government, but they are few. From the large population of Iraqis, most of the Iraqis, they like the way they are living now. And it's now, because, for the first time, they are smelling their real freedom. For the first time, they can say what they believe, what they think for the first time. Therefore, they appreciate the people who help them to get this position, their new position.

(CROSSTALK) SADOUN: That's why these terrorists, they don't like it. They don't Iraq to be stable and to (INAUDIBLE) and the people live in peace.

PHILLIPS: Brigadier General Thamir Sadoun, if I understand correctly, what you are saying, obviously showing a lot of support for newfound freedom there in Iraq, also commending your officers as they respond in the new Iraqi police force to the situation taking place, also laying blame on foreigners, you believe, not the Iraqi people, on this explosion.

Thank you for your time, sir, making the points that you have.

If you're just tuning in, once again, you were just listening to Brigadier General Thamir Sadoun. He is the new head of the Iraqi police force there, one of the main players there, I should say, in the Iraqi police force, as a number of the police officers, U.S. forces, fire department personnel, respond to this explosion that took place almost 3 1/2, close to 3 1/2 hours ago in Baghdad. It's a story we are continuing to cover as search crews look for more bodies buried beneath the rubble here after a car bomb went off about 3 1/2 hours ago, 27 people now reported dead in the Karrada district, 41 people injured, the Jabal Lebanon Hotel being leveled, in addition to a number of family residence and other homes there in the area.

Mike Brooks by our side here talking about the cause of this explosion, the crater, the large crater that was left, the 20-foot crater, which, of course, only led evidence to a vehicle explosion, car bomb explosion taking down that hotel and other homes around it.


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