Mortars pound fortified zone

Published May 17, 2007

BAGHDAD - Mortar rounds hammered the U.S.-controlled Green Zone for a second day Wednesday, killing at least two people, wounding about 10 more and raising new fears for the safety of workers at the nerve center of the American mission in Iraq.

About a dozen shells crashed into the 3.5-square-mile area of central Baghdad about 4 p.m., sending terrified pedestrians racing for the safety of concrete bunkers.

Motorists abandoned their cars and sprinted for cover. Sirens wailed and loudspeakers warned people to seek safety.

No American casualties were reported, and the two dead as well as most of the wounded were Iraqis, U.S. Embassy spokesman Lou Fintor said.

An Iraqi security officer said one of the dead was a driver for the staff of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose office is in the Green Zone. The officer spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not supposed to release the information.

Both the intensity and skill of the attack were noteworthy. The shells, believed to be 122mm, exploded in rapid succession over about a three-minute period.

The blasts were relatively close to one another, suggesting an experienced mortar crew using more than one launcher.

It was unclear whether the rounds were fired by Sunni or Shiite extremists. Both groups operate in areas of the city within rocket and mortar range of the secured complex despite the ongoing Baghdad security crackdown.

Mortar and rocket crews can set up their weapons quickly on the beds of trucks or in parts of the city with limited surveillance, fire their rounds and flee before U.S. and Iraqi forces can respond.

U.S. officials would not comment on damage, citing security.

However, the U.S. Institute of Peace said its office suffered "significant" shrapnel damage though there were no casualties among its staff.

The institute is sponsored by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which outlined a plan last December for the withdrawal of most U.S. combat troops by early 2008.

State Department spokesman Tom Casey downplayed the latest attack, saying, "It's been part of the operating environment for our officials there, as well as for other people working there."

Nevertheless, the recent increase in attacks has raised alarm among American staffers living and working in what had been considered an oasis of safety in the turbulent Iraqi capital.

This month, the U.S. Embassy ordered diplomats to wear flak jackets and helmets while outdoors or in unprotected buildings.

Later this year, the United States plans to open a massive new embassy inside the Green Zone despite the ongoing security threat. Embassy staffers have expressed concern that the new facility lacks enough space to house the estimated 1, 000 employees in safety.

At least 88 violent deaths were reported by police across Iraq on Wednesday, including 32 people who died the night before when a car bomb exploded near a market in the Shiite enclave of Abu Saydah northeast of Baghdad.

Hospital officials and victims said chlorine gas may have been used in the attack, but the U.S. military said it was still investigating whether the chemical was used as some of the victims experienced difficulties breathing.