BAGHDAD, Iraq – A massive car bomb killed at least 27 people as it ripped through a central Baghdad hotel Wednesday night, igniting nearby buildings and tossing cars like matchsticks.
Three American civilians and two Britons were believed to be among the 41 people wounded in the blast, which fit the profile of Muslim militant groups, according to the U.S. military. An Army officer at the scene said the military was still trying to determine the extent of the casualties.
The bomb sent flames leaping into the sky as it destroyed the front of the five-story Mount Lebanon Hotel and bored a 20-foot-diameter crater into the road. Iraqi rescue workers clawed through the rubble with bare hands to free victims, some of them torn to bits.
Screaming victims staggered from the scene. “No one was hurt, no one was hurt,” a man with a huge gash in his leg babbled repeatedly, even as rescue workers rushed dozens of bloodied bodies into ambulances.
The hotel is in the center of Baghdad four blocks from Firdos Square, where just under one year ago Iraqi civilians and American soldiers toppled a statue of Saddam Hussein. Iraqis and Americans are preparing to mark the first anniversary of the war against Hussein on Saturday (Friday in the United States).
The bomb, which struck one of the busiest commercial areas of downtown Baghdad, destroyed at least three nearby offices and shops, and shattered the windows off a hospital across the street. It downed utility poles and reduced a line of parked cars to twisted, flaming metal.
Mobs of Iraqis shook their fists at U.S. soldiers in tanks cordoning the area and shouted that the blast had been prompted by the occupation.
“Is this the freedom the Americans give us?” screamed Fouad al-Shakhily, 51, a former soldier who lives near the hotel. “The freedom to see our people blown to bits?”
“This is Islamic?” Atheer Nouri, 40, said angrily. “This is not Islam.” Nouri’s metal front door was blown into his living room by the explosion. A 2-foot blackened shard from an automobile landed in the courtyard in front of his apartment.
Water from the fire hoses mixed with the pungent effluent of broken sewer pipes as rescuers and American soldiers struggled to keep their footing in the debris. In the burning houses, family members wept as they searched for missing relatives.
Military investigators were uncertain whether it was a suicide bombing, said Lt. Col. Peter Jones, the Army commander for this neighborhood of Baghdad. Some witnesses said the car carrying the bomb was still moving slowly when it exploded, indicating that a driver may have been inside.
They determined it was a car bomb because the engine block was blown out of the vehicle, Jones said.
The hotel, which was renovated about a year ago, had only two guards and was not protected by the concrete blast barriers that have become a familiar sight around hotels and government buildings in Baghdad.
Several of the hotel’s neighbors said they had worried that it was a terrorist target. “We warned the hotel owner and the guards,” said Bassam Hassoun, 24, who left work at a carpentry shop next door minutes before the explosion. “They didn’t have concrete blocks in the front of the hotel, just three or four planters for flowers.”
Col. Ralph Baker of the 1st Armored Division told reporters at the scene that the bomb appeared to have been made from 1,000 pounds of plastic explosive, with artillery shells mixed in to maximize its destructive power.
That combination was used in the Aug. 19 suicide bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad that killed 22 people.
“It fits the profile of the terrorist organizations we have been combating in the last year,” Baker said.
He said the tactics were similar to those used by Ansar al-Islam, a terrorist network based in northern Iraq, and Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant with reported ties to al-Qaida who is wanted by the U.S.-led occupation authority.
Bush has sought to link the war in Iraq to the larger war on terrorism, although critics disagree and argue that al-Qaida and similar groups were never active in the parts of Iraq under Baghdad’s control until after the U.S.-led invasion. Now, officials are convinced that some foreign terrorists have entered the country’s porous borders and have established links with Hussein loyalists and home-grown Iraqi Islamic extremists to plot attacks against the United States and its allies.
An FBI official in Washington, D.C., said the bureau’s forensic experts and bomb squad technicians are already on the scene and working with local authorities to help determine who might be behind the bombing, and whether it is connected to other past attacks, particularly those using powerful explosives.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan called the explosion “a terrible terrorist attack on innocent civilians,” but said it would not halt Iraq’s progress toward democracy.
“This remains a time of testing in Iraq,” he said. “The stakes are high. The terrorists know the stakes are high, but they will not prevail.”