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CNN BREAKING NEWS

No Survivors Believed to be Left at Bombing Site

Aired March 17, 2004 - 16:30   ET

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

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We're following the aftermath of a bombing in Baghdad. A 1,000 pounds, that's the estimate. That's believed to what has caused enormous damage at the Mount Lebanon Hotel in central Baghdad.
Twenty-eight people now believed to have died, 40 people are injured, many of them very seriously.

Let's go back to CNN's Jane Arraf. She's on the scene for us at what used to be the Mount Lebanon Hotel in Baghdad. Behind you, Jane, we see recuse workers, presumably searching for remains, no survivors are believed around anymore. Is that right?

JANE ARRAF, CNN BAGHDAD BUREAU CHIEF: Wolf, you're absolutely. We are in front of actually the remains of a house and the rescue workers are standing in what would have been the living room before this huge carbomb exploded.

Now there were many people injured, at least 40, at least 28 people killed and we have with us two doctors from the hospital. The first is Dr. Mazin Issa. Dr. Mazin, can you tell us what you saw from the wounded? What did you see at the hospital?

DR. MAZIN ISSA, IRAQI PHYSICIAN: There is many injuries persons coming from this area. And many of the persons and many hysterical patients come to the hospital. We treat many injuries, and the head injuries and the chest, abdominal injuries, and many dead persons, burns. Also there is complete families coming from this building, and we treat the injured persons. The persons still in the hospital.

ARRAF: How many dead did you have in the hospital? And how many injured?

ISSA: We see about 25 patients -- dead persons in the hospital. But the injuries about 50 persons. Yes. And this means searching for two persons still under the crush. The mother of the family, and one of the babies is still under this crush of this house.

ARRAF: Is it possible that anyone is alive here?

ISSA: I don't think so. Because, the bombing is very strong. And you can see this building's destroyed completely. I don't think so there is live persons there.

ARRAF: The wounded that you saw, how badly wounded are they? ISSA: Depending on the injuries, there is many danger injuries in the head and the chest. And there is simple injuries in the limbs. But the hysterical state of patients, very bad.

ARRAF: They're in shock?

ISSA: Yes, in shock. We are very bad here. And we cannot do this just to searching for another dead persons.

ISSA: Have you ever seen anything like this?

ISSA: I don't know.

ARRAF: Dr. Mazin, thank you so much. That was Dr. Mazin Issa from the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) hospital where they have taken most of the wounded. Most of the dead and many patients, he says, still in shock. You can understand why they would be in shock. This was a huge blast in a nondescript street in a modest neighborhood in central Baghdad. A huge car bomb that U.S. military officials were saying is likely a suicide bomb that exploded in between these houses and a very small hotel -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jane, is there a sense there that the U.S. military should be doing more, could be doing more to protect these people? Is their anger being expressed at the United States on this first anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Saddam Hussein's Iraq?

ARRAF: Wolf, there was quite a lot of anger when we arrived.

But I'd ask -- I would actually like to ask an Iraqi who is here.

If I could just ask you, sir. This is Dr. Ali Khafi from the Alwiya Hospital as well. Wolf is asking, is there -- are people angry at the United States, angry at the Americans for any reason over this?

DR. ALI KHAFI, IRAQI PHYSICIAN: Yes, because some people think that every bombing in Baghdad, there is America in Baghdad or in Iraq. Some people think like that, but another don't thinking about this.

ARRAF: What do you think?

KHAFI: I think there's strangers from outside, from out in Iraq. They want to destroy the future of our country. I think this.

ARRAF: And why would they want to destroy the future of your country?

KHAFI: For many reason. They hate the freedom that Iraq will get after many years, OK? And they hate the future of this country, OK? And many other reasons.

ARRAF: Now, tell us about the scene in the hospital. What was it like after the explosion at your hospital?

KHAFI: Sorry?

ARRAF: What was it like at your hospital just after the explosion?

KHAFI: About the injured patients? There's some person arrive to our hospital, some of them have a head injury and a chest injury, others with the fractures on their limbs, and other people with the hysterical attack, OK, shocked from the bomb. That is all the cases that are at our hospital.

ARRAF: Now, you're a young doctor. When you look at this and you look at your hospital, what do you think about the future of Iraq? What do you think about your future?

KHAFI: I think this is a temporary period in Iraq. And we -- we -- I -- I -- I mean, we anger, man, OK? We all very strong Iraq, OK? This is with -- our well and -- our get well.

ARRAF: What will you do about these bombs?

KHAFI: We -- I hope from any person in Iraq to help the policemen and other security men to tell about every stranger man who arrive to Iraq and want to destroy anything in this country. I hope for any person to tell about these strangers.

ARRAF: Thank you so much.

KHAFI: Thank you.

ARRAF: That was Dr. Ali Khafi, a young doctor from the Alwiya Hospital, where, Wolf, they've taken a lot of the victims tonight.

He still believes that there's hope for this new Iraq, that this will be a better place. Hopefully, there are more people here who believe that, as well -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jane, as you well know, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian, wrote that letter affiliated with Ansar al-Islam, public enemy, according to the U.S., now No. 1 in Iraq. He really warned that there should be a civil war in Iraq, and as a result he was calling for these kinds of suicide bombings. Is there widespread suspicion that he may be behind what's happening in Baghdad right now?

ARRAF: There certainly is suspicion on a lot of people's minds, but no proof whatsoever, Wolf. And that is the problem.

Now, U.S. officials here say that bombs like this have the hallmarks of either him or groups that he has been affiliated with. And the hallmarks mean that there are large explosives, that they tend to be sophisticated attacks and that in many cases they require coordination on multiple levels.

Now, as for proof, that's much, much harder. There's very little evidence left here, for instance. Unless they can find some key element of this car, this suicide bomb which has exploded into immense numbers of pieces spread blocks away, it will be very, very difficult. There have been very few claims of responsibility for these attacks, almost none, in fact. It is an insurgency, if you will call it that, a campaign that really has not let up. Now, at times, it has changed ship. It's changed form. It's changed tactics. And the U.S. military says that it's adapting, as well to those changing tactics. But it's very, very difficult for Iraqis to know who might be behind it or even how to guard against these things -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jane, stand by.

I want to bring back our Mike Brooks, who is our law enforcement correspondent, a former FBI agent himself.

When Jane suggests it's very hard to go through this rubble and find evidence pinpointing who might have been responsible, there are very sophisticated forensic techniques that FBI investigators and others including the U.S. military have learned over the years where they can go back and pretty much piece together a lot of this, couldn't they, Mike?

MIKE BROOKS, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Absolutely, Wolf.

You go back to 1996, the Khobar Towers, that devastating bomb that killed 19 Americans there basically took off the whole front of a building there. That was a bomb that had a minimum, and they say a minimum of 5,000 pounds of C-4 explosive, similar to the explosives we're seeing here. Here, in Baghdad, they're saying 1,000 pounds, there 5,000.

We were able, through sifting and digging sand and sifting and going through the rubble were able to piece together almost 80 percent of the delivery truck. This was a truck that is used to go out and clean out port-a-johns, a small tanker truck that was packed full of explosives. But they were able to put together 80 percent of the truck back together. It took -- it took us almost a month.

I was there on the first plane there with the forensic team. And we assessed it. We got together with the locals there. We put it together and we just went about doing our business. And it took us almost a month. But, at the end of that month, we were able to find almost 80 percent of that truck.

BLITZER: The whole nature of this investigation now to try to determine to see if there's any links to other bombings in Baghdad or perhaps even elsewhere, this is a complicated investigation, but critically important for preemptive or preventive purposes down the road, to try to find as much information about this bombing as possible.

I just wanted you to weigh in on that, Mike.

BROOKS: No, absolutely, Wolf. You're absolutely right about that.

When they come in to start the forensic, the post-blast investigation, after the search-and-rescue is done, they will try to see if there is any links whatsoever with any of the other bombings. We looked at similar bombings, usually in a conventional explosive and military ordnance, back at the U.N. headquarters bombing a number of months ago and also at the Red Cross headquarters. Very similar.

But they will also take that information they have from those bombings and other bombings around Baghdad and see if they're linked with any other bombings outside of the country. You'd be amazed at the number of the bombing cases that we look from one country to another, but they gathered the evidence. They're able to make a link maybe with a piece of a blasting cap or a piece of explosive, that they're able to say, hey, this piece of explosive matches one in another country in another bombing and they are able to link together those particular incidents.

It's hard work. It's arduous work. It takes a long time, Wolf. It's something that's not done overnight. But the FBI has an excellent team. The evidence response team and their explosives experts, they're there on the ground. Some of the people there, I know. And they're very good at what they do and very, very experienced at what they do.

And I believe that, with the investigation, that there's a good possibility they could link this with other bombings in Baghdad and also outside of Baghdad -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Normally, when you have these kinds of bomb blasts, these terror attacks, I know what concerns U.S. military personnel, law enforcement authorities not only here but around the world when this happens is that it's the first of perhaps a few, two or three similar incidents, and in effect trying to lure people into an area so that they could have a second round or a third round of attacks.

I know that there's a history of that. And I'm sure it must be on the minds of U.S. military and civilian authorities and Iraqis who are on the scene as well right now. Give us your thoughts on that, Mike.

BROOKS: No, it's always on your mind, Wolf.

And in this, early stages right after this particular bombing, there was a concern and I had a concern and everyone there I know had a concern with a secondary device, a device that's aimed particularly at the rescue workers, police, fire, the Iraqi police. But we didn't see that. But again, it's something that's on your mind all the time.

Back in 1997, there were four Pakistanis killed in Karachi, four Americans killed in Karachi. And there was an article in "The New York Times" before the FBI team went there that said specifically that they were trying to lure a U.S. team there to do harm to them also with that particular incident. It's something that's always on the mind of law enforcement, military, anyone that's in an area that's so volatile such as Baghdad.

BLITZER: Well, it must be an incredibly dangerous area right now because I assume whoever was responsible for this would know, would understand that U.S. military and civilian authorities would be on the scene quickly in order to try to get as much evidence as possible who might have been responsible.

Mike, stand by.

Ken Pollack is joining us now.

Ken, you're looking at this map of the area where the Mount Lebanon Hotel is. Maybe we can put that map up for our viewers. Once again, you've been to Baghdad. You know these areas quite well. You know where the Karrada district is. You know where the area where Saddam Hussein's statue was torn down on April 9 as U.S. forces entered Baghdad. This is a huge city, Baghdad, what, five million people. You can't protect every single area in a city of this size.

KENNETH POLLACK, CNN ANALYST: No, absolutely not, Wolf. And you're right. This is an enormous city, about five million people.

It is physically one of the largest, possibly the largest city on Earth. And this is the problem is, the people who are pulling off these attacks, whether they are al Qaeda or groups affiliated with them or local Iraqis, recognize that the coalition forces can't possibly patrol everywhere.

And what's more, you've seen I think a shift in emphasis over time. Whereas early on they were going directly after U.S. military targets, the U.S. military has hardened those targets so effectively, pulled its troops in -- and, obviously, there are downsides to doing that -- but pulled its troops in, really strengthened the fences around its own facilities. But it's driven the terrorist attacks against the Iraqis themselves.

BLITZER: And what goes through your mind? You've spent your career studying Iraqis and studying this whole area. You see the sort of picture that we've created for our viewers, what happened about 4 1/2 hours or so ago in Baghdad. Who looks like the responsible, the responsible party in this particular case?

POLLACK: Well, Wolf, this is a conversation that you and I have had on a number of different occasions in these past kind of events.

And, obviously, I need to start by saying that we just don't know. The evidence really isn't in. About the best we can do at this point in time is say that it does look like it is al Qaeda-related. It is the kind of attack that seems to have the hallmarks of al Qaeda. It was a very big bomb. It was a truck bomb or a car bomb. It seems to have been a suicide attack.

And for the U.S. intelligence and military personnel in Iraq, that in and of itself is often a very important indicator that al Qaeda is behind the attack, because, typically, what we've seen is that the Iraqis themselves, the Iraqi insurgents themselves really don't have the same level of commitment, the same willingness to lay down their lives to conduct one of these attacks that the foreign fighters, these Salafi jihadists who are thoroughly imbued with the ideas of radical Islam, who believe that they're giving up their lives to achieve a greater goal. They have that willingness to sacrifice their lives that, for the most part, we've not seen coming from the Iraqis themselves. For all of these different reasons, because it does seem to have been a sophisticated operation with a lot of planning going on, it looks like it is probably al Qaeda. But, again, we need to be careful about making judgments too quickly.

BLITZER: Well, we're not going to jump to any conclusions, Ken.

We're showing our viewers these live pictures of rescue workers who are on the scene. They're going through the rubble. They're searching for remains. There may be a survivor, who knows, even though local authorities don't believe there are any additional survivors at what used to be the Mount Lebanon Hotel in Baghdad.

A lot of our viewers will jump to the conclusion as well, Ken, that what has happened today in Baghdad may be connected to what happened in Madrid only a few days ago. Would you caution them not to jump to any conclusions right now?

POLLACK: Yes, it is possible that there is a link.

But one of the things that we've seen from the al Qaeda network -- and, again, that's just making the assumption that both of these attacks were al Qaeda. I agree that, in both cases, it is looking more likely that it was al Qaeda. But, certainly, the jury is still out on both cases.

But even making the assumption for the moment that both of them were conducted by al Qaeda groups, what we've seen from al Qaeda is that it is becoming a bigger and bigger network of groups. In some ways, it is more of a movement than it is a traditional terrorist organization. There are lots of groups out there that are very loosely affiliated with al Qaeda, in many cases, so loosely affiliated that they don't seem to be taking actual operational direction from al Qaeda commanders.

They are inspired by al Qaeda. They are encouraged by al Qaeda. In some cases, they may get some degree of assistance from al Qaeda. But it doesn't necessarily have to be the case that they are being specifically tasked about this attack on this location at this point in time. It would be really remarkable if al Qaeda was able to simultaneously coordinate these kind of blasts on two different continents, something that they probably have the capability to do, but so far have not done.

And I think probably more likely, these are local groups operating in Iraq who have been given the order from the al Qaeda leadership, go out there, cause havoc, as we saw in the Zarqawi letter. Try to provoke a civil war between Iraqi Shia and Kurds and Sunnis, and, at the same time, going out to the groups in Spain and saying, Spain is an enemy of ours. They are supporting the United States in the war on terrorism, in the occupation of Iraq. Go out and cause mayhem for the Spanish as well. And we just happened to get attacks within two or three days of each other.

BLITZER: All right, Ken, stand by.

I want to bring back Jane Arraf, our Baghdad bureau chief. She's on the phone with us.

Jane, as we see these rescue workers continue to through the rubble at the Mount Lebanon Hotel in Baghdad, hopefully, looking for survivors, but if not at least the remains of people who had been inside, what do we know about the victims so far?

ARRAF: Wolf, we know that a lot of the victims were actually in houses like this. The pictures that we're seeing is a house. And now what we're seeing in front of me, they're raising one of the steel girders.

Now, this is a very poignant scene. They're standing in the living room of this house. In front of me is a ceiling fan ripped off, pieces of furniture. And, poignantly, there's a cane lying in the rubble. They're trying to remove the steel girders to see what might be underneath. The Hotel that is across the street, that was a hotel that was built just after the war and opened after the war, had nine guests in it according to the managing director of the hotel.

Now, he had left 15 minutes before the blast, he says, to go home for the evening. He heard the huge explosion and headed back to find this devastation. He says the guests included two Britons who had been working for a mobile phone company. That was a phone company that had been set up here, an Egyptian phone company. It had recently had more employees staying there. There were also two Jordanians, two Egyptians, the Lebanese owner of the hotel, he says, and about 20 workers in that hotel. The majority of victims were Iraqi.

And so far, there appear to be at least 28 dead. Now, one of the doctors who is here at the site tells us that it appears that the child may still be underneath this rubble. But no one really is holding up the hope that anyone survived the devastation of this house falling down around them.

BLITZER: All right, Jane, stand by.

I want to continue to show our viewers what's going on, but I also want to take a quick commercial break. At least 28 people now dead, 40 people injured in this Baghdad hotel car bomb blast. A 1,000-pound bomb -- that's the estimate -- destroyed this hotel, rescue workers now searching for perhaps a survivor, but more likely remains.

We're going to take a break. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're continuing our coverage of the Baghdad hotel bombing, a car bombing, a 1,000-pound bombing, killing 28 people, injuring at least 50 others.

U.S. Army Major General Martin Dempsey is on the phone. He's on the scene. He's joining us now live.

General, thanks very much for updating our viewers.

What do we know right now about this hotel bombing?

MAJ. GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY, U.S. ARMY: Well, we don't know -- certainly, we don't know who's responsible. We know the aftereffects, the consequences of it.

And I'm standing here watching the Iraqi police and fire department trying to dig out from some of the very tragic loss of life. So we know that there are 28 deaths and 40-some-odd injuries. And so, as I said, we know the aftereffects. We don't know yet the cause.

BLITZER: General Dempsey is with the 1st Armored Division.

General, was there any advanced warning that this might happen during this week, the first anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq?

DEMPSEY: No. We really haven't had any intelligence buildup for this.

On occasion, as you're aware, we do have threat indications that would cause us to prepare for certain kinds of attacks, sometimes rocket attacks, sometimes roadside bombs, sometimes vehicle-borne devices. But we had no advanced warning of this one. And as far as the run-up to the first anniversary, you know, this comes, coincides with some religious holidays, and so there's a whole bunch of things that coincide on the calendar, but nothing that would have caused us to expect this today.

BLITZER: Well, as a result of what has happened on this day in Baghdad -- it's now after midnight -- they're approaching 1:00 a.m. your time -- are you taking new steps to boost security, to bolster security in the area?

DEMPSEY: Well, in the area is an interesting choice of words. This is a side street essentially in the middle of downtown Baghdad, a city of 5.5. million.

To the larger question of boosting security, of course, we work on that every day. These kind of attacks, though, are only -- you can only defeat these kind of threats by being on the offensive against those that are planning them. There's not enough concrete barriers in the universe to protect every hotel in every city, even in Iraq, let alone in the rest of the world. So, every time I come to one of these scenes -- and, sadly, I've experienced a few of them now in my year in Baghdad -- it increases my resolve to stay on the offense against terrorism.

BLITZER: When is the 1st Armored Division, your division, scheduled to rotate out?

DEMPSEY: Well, we've got about another month to a month and a half. The unit replacing us, part of them are here now, and we're going through the process of transferring our intelligence networks and our Iraqi counterparts, going through with them how we stood up the Iraqi security forces over the past year, and then giving them some insights on to what we think is next.

So the answer to the question is about six weeks. And the process began about four weeks ago.

BLITZER: General Dempsey, you say there aren't enough barriers to fully secure an area like this. We had heard earlier from our Walter Rodgers in Baghdad that the U.S. military had been engaged in a more aggressive policy in recent days, perhaps weeks, to try to round up weapons, ammunition, explosive devices that could be used in Baghdad.

I assume the 1st Armored Division, which is responsible for Baghdad, you were involved in this new campaign. Was there such a campaign?

DEMPSEY: Yes, I don't think I would characterize it as a campaign.

We periodically, once we gain enough intelligence, we plan intelligence-based raids and cordon and searches. And we had developed over about the past month sufficient intelligence to allow us to go out and -- with some very specific targeting. And, in fact, that's where I came from before I stopped at this site of this very tragic bombing.

We had been in another part of the town and had a pretty successful night. And then, earlier in the day, in fact, Jane Arraf was out with another unit that had some success finding some ammunition and explosives that we think we can now link back to personalities. I mean, we're always eager to take ammunition off the street. But, fundamentally, our principal purpose is to find those that would attack and get them off the street, because that's the enemy.

It's great to get all the bombs off the street, but we've got to get those who would plant them. And you're right. We are in the middle of an operation right now intended to do just that.

BLITZER: Major General Martin Dempsey, the commander of the 1st Armored Division, getting ready to come back home after almost a year in Iraq, good luck to you and all the soldiers of the 1st Armored Division, a storied, historic division with lots of experience. And I'm sure all of you will have many stories to tell in the years to come.

General Dempsey, be safe over there. Thanks very much for joining us and updating our viewers on what's going on in Baghdad.

DEMPSEY: OK. Thank you for the kind words.

BLITZER: We're going to take another quick break, but our coverage continues of this hotel bombing in Baghdad. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're continuing our coverage of the Baghdad bombing occurring almost five hours or so ago, 28 people killed, 50 people injured.

CNN's security analyst Kelly McCann has been helping us understand some of the security problems involved in protecting people in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq.

This -- I assume, Kelly, they have to be working under the assumption that what happened today is certainly not going to be the last of it?

J. KELLY MCCANN, CNN SECURITY ANALYST: No, this won't be an isolated incident, Wolf.

The problem is, is, of course, as commerce starts to flourish in Baghdad, you're going to see an influx of softer targets, of more commercial interests, people who don't have access to the kind of military measures that some of the State Department-funded contracts do, etcetera, people who are just there to do business with electrical wire and piping and things like that. And that's going to, unfortunately, present a lot of new targets Wolf.

BLITZER: So what does that mean for the U.S. military, the Iraqi law enforcement authorities, the coalition forces, who presumably are going to be there for some time to come?

MCCANN: Intelligence is everything, Wolf.

To the extent that you can get into the grassroots community and have eyes and ears in the communities -- you know, it's very difficult for a Westerner to look at somebody and say, well, there's a person who is Sudanese or there's a person who is Yemeni or there's a person who doesn't belong here. It's very easy for the local nationals to do that.

And I think that there are trusts being built up with Iraqi counterparts. It will only get better, but it's not for lack of trying on the bad guys' part.

BLITZER: And you heard Major Dempsey (ph), the 1st Armored Division, tell us just a few moments ago they are in the midst of an operation to go ahead and try to round up weapons equipment as much as possible.

MCCANN: It's amazing, Wolf. When you're in the city, there are literally blocks of chop shops where vehicles are reconditioned, they're bought at auction, and the reconditioned. They are in those blocks, shops that are used to take vehicles that were stolen and configure them as bombs, configure them as rocket launchers, et cetera.

There are weekly busts, if you will, of those kinds shops based on intelligence. There a good proactive program. But you've got a multilayered threat here that involves at least four entities. The Zarqawi affiliate, al Qaeda, former regime loyalists and of course those that people pay, the criminals that were less loose of the prison system.

So it's very, very complex.

BLITZER: All right, Kelly McCann, stand by. We're going to continue our coverage.

You're looking at these live pictures of what happened in Baghdad only five hours or so ago. More of our coverage continues now on a special edition of "WOLF BLITZER REPORTS."

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