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Baghdad bomb attack targets Westerners

A car bomb during morning rush hour in Baghdad kills at least 13 people, including three General Electric workers.

By wire services
Published June 15, 2004

[AP photo]
Moments after Monday's thunderous blast, young men raced into the street, hurling stones at the flaming wreckage, looting personal belongings of the victims and chanting slogans against the occupation.

BAGHDAD - A car bomb shattered a convoy of Westerners in Baghdad on Monday, killing at least 13 people, including three General Electric workers and two bodyguards.

In response, hundreds of shouting Iraqis threw stones at U.S. soldiers, burned an American flag, danced around the charred body of a foreign contractor and looted a handful of stores. It was some of the worst rioting since Baghdad fell last year.

The blast, during the morning rush hour near busy Tahrir (Liberation) Square, was the second vehicle bombing in Baghdad in two days amid a surge of bloodshed in the capital only two weeks before the formal end of the U.S.-led occupation.

A few hours later, two more bombs went off, one south of the capital, one north, killing at least eight people.

It was one of the deadliest days in Iraq in some time, and U.S. officials said the attacks were part of the campaign to derail the June 30 transfer of authority to an interim Iraqi government. U.S. officials have repeatedly warned of the potential for major terrorist strikes in the days leading up to the transfer, and in the past week, more than 40 people have been killed and hundreds have been wounded. On Sunday, a car bomb in Baghdad killed 12 Iraqis.

Iraq's interior minister said he believed foreigners carried out the attack, and Prime Minister Iyad Allawi accused Jordanian-born terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi of trying to disrupt the transfer of sovereignty. Zarqawi, believed to have contacts with al-Qaida, is accused in last month's decapitation of American Nicholas Berg.

The chaotic scene Monday was reminiscent of the violence and anti-American hatred that accompanied the March 31 slaying in Fallujah of four Americans, whose bodies were mutilated and hung from a Euphrates River bridge.

Moments after the thunderous blast, which shook the heart of the capital, young men raced into the street, hurling stones at the flaming wreckage, looting personal belongings of the victims and chanting slogans against the occupation.

Many of the youths who took part, Iraqi witnesses said, came from the nearby Thieves Market, where street vendors, mostly dispossessed Shiites, line the sidewalk to sell their wares from makeshift tables. Poor and young, they have formed a ready pool of supporters of rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr; they clash nearly every day with U.S. occupation troops, particularly in the Sadr City slum of eastern Baghdad, and are eager to believe the worst about U.S. intentions in Iraq.

Iraqi police stood by helplessly - unable to control the crowd only weeks before they are to assume more security responsibility under the U.S. exit strategy.

As flames and smoke enveloped the vehicles, youths taunted American troops and threatened Western journalists. American troops beat one man with a stick, but after failing to restrain the crowd, the troops and police withdrew.

Crowds chanted, "Down with the USA!" and set fire to an American flag. Young men gleefully displayed a British passport and identification card issued by the Coalition Provisional Authority.

The dead included three employees of Granite Services Inc., a Tampa subsidiary of General Electric Co., and two security contractors employed by Olive Security of London. The Westerners included one American, two Britons, one Frenchman and one victim of undetermined nationality, officials said.

U.S. officials said 62 people were injured, including 10 foreign contractors. Hospital officials said many of the wounded had lost limbs.

The foreign victims were helping rebuild power plants, Allawi said.

In Baghdad, the rumble of explosions has become almost like a morning alarm clock. Many of the bombs are detonated between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m., during rush hour, to inflict the maximum number of casualties. Sirens immediately follow, and usually both U.S. soldiers and Iraqi police respond to the attacks. But a certain pattern has been established. As soon as the U.S. soldiers arrive, the crowds scatter. When the U.S. troops back off, no matter how many Iraqi police are present, the mobs return, in greater numbers.

U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, spokesman for the occupation military forces, said the Iraqi authorities are responsible for day-to-day public security in Baghdad.

"We remain ready to support if asked," he said.

The attack was the latest in a series directed against Iraq's infrastructure or those seeking to rebuild it after decades of war, international sanctions and Saddam Hussein's tyranny.

GE said Monday it has no plans to pull its workers out of the country.

"We remain committed to the reconstruction of Iraq," said GE spokeswoman Louise Binns.

Nevertheless, the bombing dramatizes the dangerous challenge the United States faces as it struggles to revive the country's power supply and show Iraqis the occupation can improve their lives.

The attacks have sent contractors scurrying from Iraq. They have slowed improvements and caused the U.S.-led coalition to fall short of its goal of delivering 6,000 megawatts of consistent power in June. Power generation currently hovers at about prewar levels of 4,400 megawatts.

U.S. officials said they were uncertain whether Monday's bomb was detonated by a suicide attacker.

A police officer, Ghahtan Abood, said the bomb went off when a vehicle rammed the contractors' three-vehicle convoy as it sped down the street. However, coalition officials said that they were unsure of the account and that the bomb may have been planted along the street and detonated as the convoy passed.

An Interior Ministry official said 13 people were killed in the blast, including the five foreigners.

The bomb exploded as three SUVs carrying the contractors were passing through the square. The blast destroyed eight vehicles and turned nearby shops and a two-story house to rubble.

Iraqi bystanders scooped up victims and loaded them into vehicles or pickup trucks to speed them to hospitals. Body parts and fragments of clothing lay scattered around the street.

In other violence Monday, a roadside bomb struck an Army convoy of 20 vehicles about three miles north of Fallujah, witnesses said. It could not be immediately determined if there were any casualties.

Near Salman Pak southeast of Baghdad, police said a car bomb exploded between police vehicles, killing four people and wounding four. The report could not be independently confirmed.

In Mosul, four members of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps were wounded when a bomb exploded as they were patrolling.

- Information from the Associated Press, Washington Post, Knight Ridder Newspapers and New York Times was used in this report.

[Last modified June 15, 2004, 01:00:24]

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