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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Car Bomb Explodes Outside Baghdad Hotel

Aired March 17, 2004 - 13:00   ET

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

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: And as we continue our coverage, let's return once again to CNN's Jane Arraf, who is there on the scene, which is a scene that can be best described as completely chaotic, Jane doing her best and doing a good job trying to sort through all of this and trying to give us a sense of what's going on.
Jane, are they still removing those injured, and perhaps fatalities from the rubble as we speak?

JANE ARRAF, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Miles, it's really hard to tell how many (UNINTELLIGIBLE) -- there is so much smoke here. It's hard to tell how many people might be beneath the rubble of the scene.

As you look down, it is still aflame. The flames billowing out of the windows of the Mount Lebanon Hotel, the hotel that was hit. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) You probably hear those ambulances, taking people, still, away.

Clearly there are casualties. It was a huge car bomb, a huge crater. They're fused with twisted metal, tumbling down.

There are people that are grabbing with their bare hands, trying to clear out -- there are Iraqi police, and emergency workers trying to clear the area so they can try to distinguish the flames. There are people who may still be trapped underneath -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Jane, I hope you can hear me OK. Obviously, you're right in the middle of all this. Do you -- Can you estimate -- and I realize it's difficult, given all that's around you -- can you estimate the size of the crater that's left by this explosion?

ARRAF: Miles, the crater takes up virtually the width of the street. It is quite deep, as well. It's hard to tell in the dark exactly how deep but it is a very large crater. Clearly, a very large car bomb.

The car bomb actually rattled the windows and virtually rocked the building that we were in, the Palestine Hotel, which is the hotel that's the adjoining one, where many foreign journalists and U.S. contractors stay.

The explosion that was heard, in the Green Zone, in fact. One U.S. military official, responding to reports it might have been a mortar attack. It was much too large for a mortar. It could have been nothing but a car bomb. And indeed, it was.

We're now on the corner. Everyone has been cleared from the area. There is American military coming in. And smoke continues to billow from what appears to be a half finished hotel.

This Central Baghdad. It's a small street with many small hotels. And at this time of the evening it would have been quite crowded, as well -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Jane, can you tell if there was much damage to other surrounding buildings, or if it's limited to what was this hotel?

ARRAF: There was a lot of damage. In fact, some of the buildings appear to have come tumbling down, Miles. And as we watch more flames, more smoke, more ambulances and their sirens, with the smoke billowing there is shattered glass from blocks away. Shattered glass and people running, arguing with each other about whether it was a rocket or whether it was a bombing. Very clearly, a suicide bomb, and quite a powerful one.

O'BRIEN: We're looking at live pictures now as those U.S. troops that you mentioned arrive on the scene. What is their role in all of this right now? They're just trying to secure the perimeter around this crater so the Iraqi authorities can do their job?

ARRAF: They're trying to secure the perimeter essentially for two reasons. One is a fear that there might be a secondary explosion. That's the main reason why everyone has been pushed away.

And it's hard to explain exactly how chaotic the scene is. There are many people who believe that they may have relatives or friends trapped in that rubble who have been turned away and are walking away, sobbing.

There are ambulances trying to get through. There are obviously journalists here. The traffic, there are police sirens. The U.S. soldiers trying to restore a little bit of order to this at this point -- Wolf -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Do you have any idea, Jane -- I realize you probably haven't had time to track this little track down. It's described -- The Mount Lebanon Hotel is described as one of the smaller hotels in central Baghdad. Do you know the size, how many rooms?

ARRAF: From the appearance of it would have had a few dozen rooms at most. And this is an area of town -- because it's near the commercial section, it is sandwiched in between two major streets. And it would have been the kind of small hotel, like many here, where people who didn't have a lot of money or wanted to keep a low profile would stay.

Now, we are told that -- by one person who said that he worked in the -- in an adjoining hotel, that there had been nobody staying there, that it had not been, in fact, open. It's not entirely clear what the target would have been.

A small, fairly clear hotel doesn't seem to be the target for a large suicide bomb, but it was a place -- several small hotels where aid workers, when they have been here, journalists, some of them, and Iraqi and Arab businesspeople may have stayed. This hotel appeared unoccupied, according to witnesses here. But clearly, there were casualties. There was so much devastation that people appear still to be trapped in the rubble.

O'BRIEN: Now this, according to all our accounts here -- and I'm sure you can bear this out, occurred at about 10 after 8 p.m. East -- excuse me, local time. What would that part of Baghdad have been like at that time? Filled with people, or would everybody be inside?

ARRAF: That's about the borderline for when people would still be going out for the evening. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) And Iraqis, we have to remember, are a very social people. In normal times, they would pack their families into cars and taxies and go out to restaurants, go out to visit family.

Now, the security situation means that come dark, especially (UNINTELLIGIBLE), a lot of people stay home. But still, at 8 at night there would have been a lot of people in the streets. A very busy area. And there are shops that are open past 8 p.m. at night. There are popular restaurants. And there would be have been a considerable amount of traffic.

There's been at least a couple of hours from the point when the streets would have started to have been cleared, because people are too afraid to go out. It would have been a -- the part of the evening, perhaps, when people were heading out -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Can you -- That noise that we're hearing, obviously, more ambulances still responding. We're talking now an hour after the fact here.

Is there still -- Are there still quite a few casualties that need to be attended to?

ARRAF: There evidently are, and given the number of ambulances that, as you point out, do keep arriving. And although we could not see any casualties, the indications are that they are there, perhaps buried.

There are some -- appear to be buried in the rubble because of the explosion. Because we saw (UNINTELLIGIBLE) people were scrambling some on their hand and knee, to pick up bricks and mortars and broke beams, some of them struggling trying to find people would evidently were still underneath.

Flames going out of some of the other buildings, the people visible in the windows, people who evidently went in to see if there were any victims left to help pull out.

There are choking smoke down that street. Still rising. And everywhere, everywhere you look, there are U.S. soldiers, emergency workers, Iraqi police, still telling people to move back from the scene (UNINTELLIGIBLE) -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: And if you could put this, for us, into some degree of context, Jane, we're talking about the week that is the anniversary of the U.S. invasion. And in the midst of a U.S. crackdown on the insurgents, this sends a very powerful message, does it not?

ARRAF: It does send a powerful message, Miles, as does every other suicide bomb. It resonates quite deeply here with Iraqis.

It's an indication to them that, no matter what they have gained, and they've gained a lot. They no longer have Saddam Hussein. They have the prospect of the future; they have the prospect of their own government, to control their own oil.

They've also lost something. And in many people's minds what they've lost is the security of knowing that they can go out in the evening, that they can go out to dinner, they can ride with their families, not worry they would be caught in some suicidal bomb, that something wouldn't explode, that a building they're passing by wouldn't fall down on there.

There is a tremendous sense of insecurity and uncertainty about the future, and it's fueled by things like this.

O'BRIEN: Jane, there's a report which just came across the wires as we've been speaking here from the Reuters news service, quoting an interior minister of some sort, indicating there it might very well have been a rocket attack there, as opposed to a car bomb, as we've been reporting.

You've seen a lot of the remnants of the activities such as this over your years of reporting. What's your guess on that? Could this have been a rocket attack?

ARRAF: it looks more like what's been a car bomb, Miles. There were engine parts still aflame. There were the remnants of -- parts of the car -- seem to have been thrown quite a long way away. The shattered glass across the way. All of that indicates something exploding, as opposed to something landing.

Indeed, a military official here, when asked whether it was a rocket, very early on, said he didn't think it couldn't possibly have been a rocket, the explosion was so loud. It was seen and heard quite far from here, the Iraq Hotel (ph), where we and other journalists, U.S. contractors are staying.

From the evidence on the ground and from what military officials were saying when they first heard that explosion, there does appear to indeed have been a car bomb.

O'BRIEN: And we just want to remind our viewers that we're speaking with CNN's Jane Arraf, who is at the scene of this powerful explosion, which occurred a little more than an hour ago in central Baghdad.

That a smaller hotel called the Mount Lebanon Hotel, a hotel that, we're told, was not fortified to protect itself against bomb attacks necessarily. And which has apparently fallen victim to just that.

Jane, if you could -- for our viewers who are just tuning in, if you could just describe the scene as you see it right now.

ARRAF: Miles, it's an ever-changing scene, as more and more ambulances and security forces come in.

And indeed, the Iraqi police -- and there have been many Iraqi police (ph) -- keep pushing people back, quite violently in some cases. They say there are fears that there will be another explosion.

Clearly, they are worried that -- I'm sorry. Clearly, they are worried that people rushing in will hamper the rescue efforts that are still going on.

There is still (UNINTELLIGIBLE) -- just to tell you what the street was like. A small street like many in Central Baghdad, in a part of central Baghdad that's chock-full of small hotels, small basically sandwiched between two major streets.

It's not clear what the target was. The target is very unlikely to have been a small, nondescript hotel, where it's unclear whether anyone was staying. Similarly, it's a place to cause perhaps maximum number of casualties for a soft target.

If you went further down there would be security barriers. There would be security people, bomb sniffing dogs, major hotels that are very well secured. This one was not.

And it is still a scene of devastation. As we were forced out of the area there were people still scrambling through the rubble. And some of the rubble, burning timbers from buildings that seem to have fallen from the blast, trying to get anyone still trapped there.

The ambulances are still coming. They are still try to do whatever rescue efforts they appear (UNINTELLIGIBLE) -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: CNN's Jane Arraf, reporting from the scene of this explosion now a little more than an hour ago. Powerful blast, causing significant damage, leveling a small central Baghdad hotel, causing damage in that neighborhood. And obviously a very chaotic scene of tragedy at this moment.

We're going to get back to Jane in just a little bit, give her a little breather, an opportunity to gather a few more facts. Pass it along to Kyra.

KYRA PHILLIPS, ANCHOR: We're being told now this explosion killed has many as ten people. That's according to Iraqi police. The five-story Jabal Lebanon hotel completely destroyed. What Iraqi police now believe was a car

The blast rocked the center of the Iraqi capital. As you know, just a few days before the U.S.-led invasion, Operation Iraqi Freedom began, almost exactly one year ago to this day.

Ambulances continuing to rush to the scene. Also, soldiers looking for bodies still believed to be buried in that rubble.

As we look at the damage, as we hear reports of a possible car bomb, we want to bring in our security analyst, Mike Brooks.

You've responded -- when you were with the FBI -- to bombings, explosions like this.

Let's first talk about the huge crater. The way Jane described this massive crater in the side of the street. What could that mean?

MIKE BROOKS, CNN SECURITY ANALYST: What she's describing -- you describe a crate they're cover the almost whole entire street, she said, the width of the street.

Now, you go back to 1996, Khobar Towers, I was one of the investigators first on the scene there. And you had a truck bomb then that made also a large crater. It was about 80 feet across and about 30 feet deep.

And there -- we estimated that it was a minimum -- a minimum of 5,000 pounds of high explosive.

Now, my sources in Iraq right now in Baghdad that I've spoken to, they said the kind of ordnance that they're using, the kinds of things they're making bombs out of now, they're using high explosive and old military ordnance.

Now with the size of this crater, with the thermal event that we see, with the amount of fire there, I would say that it would also be, again, probably a combination of high explosive and could be military ordnance, Kyra, involved in this kind, because of the damage that we're seeing.

Again, it's very, very dark but what -- from what Jane is describing it does sound like either a large car bomb or some kind of truck bomb, especially with the size of the crater that you have.

PHILLIPS: I am being told we just got some home video in. We're going to roll the home video taken there on the streets of central Baghdad as this explosion took place, about 8:10 p.m. Baghdad Time.

We're continuing to get details in by the moment with regard to injuries and buildings that have been affected. Ten -- At least 10 people reported killed right now. However, rescue troops trying to get additional bodies out of there, believed to be buried under the rubble.

Mike, there was a report that came through from the deputy Iraqi minister, saying this could be a -- or actually saying a rocket attack caused this Baghdad hotel blast.

Does that make sense? Could this have been a rocket attack?

BROOKS: There's a possibility it could be a rocket. But for the size of the crater you have and for the thermal event, the amount of fire you have, you don't usually see that with a rocket. But again, there is a possibility.

Jane Arraf said she was speaking to some military people that were out on street, in the area where it happened, and you would think that maybe they would hear a rocket, some incoming, coming into the area. Apparently no indication of that.

And they also, initial reports are saying that it was some kind of a car bomb.

And from just indications -- again, it's speculation, but from my investigations -- I've worked at Khobar Towers and again at the U.S. embassy bombing in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1998, where about 1500 pound of explosive were used in a small truck. This is very, very indicative of that kind of bombing.

PHILLIPS: I have a couple questions for you. You were mentioning some bombings historically that you responded to. I'm thinking about the IRA. And when bombs like this would take place, there would also be additional bombs set up, possibly in closer -- you know, the same target area. And obviously, that must be what's on the mind of U.S. soldiers as they're trying desperately to get everybody out of the area.

Is that a common tactic, terrorist tactic, to go after rescue crews and those trying to respond to the initial explosion?

BROOKS: Absolutely. We've seen that with the provisional IRA in London and in Northern Ireland. We've also seen it here in the United States.

And one of the concerns is, as you said, is secondary devices. And my sources tell me with some of the bombs that they've been using, we've seen some bombs go off in the streets of Baghdad over the recent months.

And some of these bombs that they've been using, they've been disguising them as curbing. They've been disguising them as other -- you know, planters and putting them in things like that could also be radio detonated.

That would definitely be a concern right now of the military and the rescue personnel there in Baghdad.

PHILLIPS: There are even reports coming out some of these bombs were being put into military MRIs (sic), you know, their meals and...

BROOKS: MREs, yes, right.

PHILLIPS: MREs, excuse me, thank you.

But you know, something else, too, if we look at the terror attacks in Madrid. And you know the reports that were coming forward about, you know, cell phones, that bombs could be detonated virtually from anywhere by wireless cell phones.

I mean this is something that could have gone off -- not necessarily someone driving in and delivering it. It might not have been a suicide bombing.

But could technology be contributing to the size of these blasts, where they are, how close they get?

BROOKS: It could. We heard earlier from Kelly McCann, who said in this particular area, it's not as secure. The perimeter isn't as secure as it is around some other hotels. Someone could bring a car in, leave the car there, walk away from it and then remotely detonate it.

We just saw the other day, outside the U.S. embassy consulate in Pakistan, the large vehicle bomb that they had planned to set off outside the U.S. consulate. That those same kind of explosive devices, improvised explosive devices in vehicles, have been used in Baghdad.

And we may see it again, Kyra. And you know, as my sources over there have told me, that they are disguising them in all kinds of things.

We do know that the FBI does have a presence in Baghdad. I'm sure that they're there -- or if not responding to the scene, will be responding in a short time. They were there investigating some of the other bombs that they thought were linked to possible terrorist activity.

And again this, as we've seen in the past, most likely we could say was terrorist activity. Things like this just don't go off on their own.

PHILLIPS: How do you try -- how do you get in there and try to save the lives of those buried in that rubble, in addition to trying to secure that area, being concerned about another possible bomb explosion?

BROOKS: Very difficult. And the first thing there, of course, is the search and rescue. As we see -- as we see now with the search and rescue personnel there on the scene. We've seen the military try to form some type of perimeter around the scene.

But again, very, very -- very, very fluid situation. A situation very dangerous, especially with the possibility of secondary explosions. But you do the best you can.

And then, as you move in, you start looking to identify what kind of bomb it was, how it was delivered, and to see if there were any links between this bombing and any of the other bombings we've seen over the recent year, in and around Baghdad.

PHILLIPS: Our Mike Brooks, please stay with us, former FBI, counter terrorism. Also, number -- worked with a number of law enforcement agencies, sort of debriefing us on what type of explosion this could be.

If you're just tuning in, breaking news out of Baghdad. Ten people right now reported killed after a massive explosion shook the Karada District there in central Baghdad, pretty much leveling the Mount Lebanon Hotel. A number of civilians, working, living in that area now. U.S. troops responding to the scene, trying to save those still trapped within the rubble. As the investigation into how this took place, possibly a car bomb being reported now, taking down this hotel and affecting central Baghdad -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Iraqi authorities, Iraqi ambulances, as well as U.S. troops on the scene there. Reports of as many as 10 people killed. Of course, those early numbers in the final analysis don't usually match what the final toll will be. But that's what we have so far.

Joining us, also live from Baghdad, from the Palestine Hotel, not far from the scene, a person who undoubtedly felt this explosion, as it occurred, CNN's Walt Rodgers.

And Walt, I should warn you that we are expecting the White House briefing any moment here. I may have to interrupt you. Just giving you a head's up on that.

But what did you actually see and hear as this happened?

RODGERS: Wolf (sic), I was in the workspace, the CNN workspace in the Palestine hotel. And all of a sudden, the windows started shaking; the doors shook. You knew that there was a major explosion close by.

Some of the younger people started saying, "Oh, a mortar."

This was way too big for an artillery...

O'BRIEN: Walt -- Walt, I'm sorry. I'm going to have to interrupt you now. Let's go to the White House briefing, Scott McClellan.

(INTERRUOTED BY LIVE EVENT)

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