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Day 17

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Targeting Central Baghdad

Attack on the Palestine Hotel

by KEN SENGUPTA And PATRICK COCKBURN

in Baghdad

It was the second time the 19-storey Palestine has come under attack leading to deaths. As US forces were first moving into Baghdad, an American Abrams tank shelled the hotel, killing and injuring a number of journalists.

A central Baghdad hotel used by foreign journalists and contractors, and guarded by American troops, has been hit by three huge suicide bombs.

At least 20 people were killed and 42 others injured when the explosive devices detonated outside the Palestine Hotel in the city centre. Some members of the media are believed to be among the injured.

The attacks were launched from Firdous Square, adjoining the hotel, where American troops pulled down the statue of Saddam Hussein in what became one of the iconic images of the war. Soon afterwards, President George Bush declared that the war had been successfully concluded.

Yesterday’s attack was one of the most spectacular mounted during the increasingly violent insurgency which has followed, and is being seen as a vivid example of how little control the Americans and their Iraqi allies have in the heart of the capital.

According to the Iraqi government, the intention of the insurgents was to storm the hotel and take hostages. However, the concentration of the media in the vicinity also presented the bombers’ the opportunity for widespread international coverage.

It was the second time the 19-storey Palestine has come under attack leading to deaths. As US forces were first moving into Baghdad, an American Abrams tank shelled the hotel, killing and injuring a number of journalists.

In yesterday’s attack, a cement-mixing truck packed with explosives is said to have driven into a 12ft concrete blast-wall surrounding the Palestine and another hotel, the Sheraton.

A car, also carrying a bomb, stationed near the truck exploded almost simultaneously. About two minutes later, a third bomb followed, behind the 14th Ramadan mosque in front of the square. Unconfirmed reports said that a number of rockets had also been fired into the area.

The blasts showered debris over the surrounding district. A black cloud of dust spread over the city centre late in the afternoon as local people were preparing for ifthar, the breaking of the Ramadan fast.

US and Iraqi forces rushed reinforcements to the hotels which are used as head offices for the American television network Fox News, Associated Press and the US-funded Alhurra television station. Other news organizations, including the BBC and Reuters, have bases nearby.

The bombs were followed by sustained gunfire. Iraqi police said they had come under sniper attack, but witnesses claimed police opened up with heavy weaponry at random in the aftermath of the bombings.

The blasts shattered windows at the Palestine and caused extensive damage inside. At least six people were injured inside the hotel, and, according to news agencies, a number of photographers were among the casualties outside. A US Army Bradley armoured car was damaged but the Pentagon stated that there had been no American casualties.

Mouwafak al-Rubaei, the national security adviser to the Iraqi government, declared that the attack was a "well-planned and very clear effort" to take over the hotel and take hostages.

"Three cars came from three different roads in succession to create security breaches for the terrorists. They were armed with RPGs and light arms," he said. "The plan was very clear to us, which was to take security control over the two hotels, and to take the foreign and Arab journalists as hostages to use them as a bargain."

Captain Abdul Mohammed Ghani of the police said: "We have had a lot of casualties." The Deputy Interior Minister, Hussein Kamal, added: "There are four or five Iraqi police among the dead, but civilians have been killed as well."

Ahmed Safaa Hamid, who witnessed the blasts, said: "They were very, very big, one after the other. There was a lot of rifle fire as well, everywhere. The ambulances took a lot of bodies away. There was blood and glass and metal everywhere and many people injured, shouting and crying."

Violence continued elsewhere in Iraq, resulting in 24 deaths. Twelve construction workers were killed near Mussayib, 40 miles south of Baghdad, and police found six bodies, three women and three men, in the town of Iskandariyah. A US Marine was killed in Ramadi, bringing the toll of American soldiers killed in combat operations since the invasion to 1,994.