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Rockets Strike Baghdad Hotel

Rockets Strike Baghdad Hotel

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- In a daring strike, insurgents attacked the heart of the U.S. occupation Sunday, unleashing a barrage of rockets against the Al Rasheed hotel, where U.S. officials live and where visiting Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was staying. Wolfowitz escaped, but an American colonel was killed and 15 people were wounded.

Scores of American officials fled the hotel in pajamas and shorts after the 6:10 a.m. assault, in which a rocket battery on a timer, wheeled into a nearby park, hit the hotel with eight to 10 missiles. Holes pockmarked the Al Rasheed's modern, concrete facade, and windows were shattered in two dozen rooms.

Wolfowitz, who appeared shaken as he addressed reporters at a convention center across the street where most officials fled, vowed the attack would not deter the United States in its mission to transform Iraq.

"There are a few who refuse to accept the reality of a new and free Iraq," he said. "We will be unrelenting in our pursuit of them."

The bold strike from nearly point-blank range may have been timed to coincide with the lifting of the curfew in Baghdad and opening of a key downtown bridge, a U.S. commander said. Those steps were taken because what occupation officials called an improving security situation, but the attack once again pointed up the vulnerability of even heavily guarded U.S. facilities in Iraq, where American forces sustain an average of 26 lower-profile attacks daily.

A senior FBI official said the bureau, the Defense Department, the State Department's Diplomatic Security Service and Iraqi police were conducting a joint investigation.

The slain American was a colonel, Wolfowitz said, without identifying him. That would be one of the highest ranking U.S. military officers killed in the Iraqi insurgency. Since President Bush declared an end to major combat in Iraq on May 1, 109 U.S. soldiers have been killed by hostile fire.

The 15 wounded included seven American civilians, four U.S. military personnel and four civilians from other nations, the U.S. military said. One Briton was among the wounded.

Army Brig. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the commander of the 1st Armored Division, which is responsible for Baghdad security, said the attack was probably took a couple of months to plan.

"No doubt it required some reconnaissance and some rehearsal ... some time to weld this apparatus together (and) probably a rehearsal to pull this into position," Dempsey told a news conference.

Calling the makeshift device "clever," he said the launcher was disguised to look like a portable generator and contained a set of tubes with 40 pods to contain missiles.

He said about eight to 10 missiles -- 65mm and 85mm -- hit the hotel, and 11 were still in the launcher when U.S. troops examined it. He said he did not know how many missiles were fired but missed the Al Rasheed.

The launcher also was booby-trapped, and troops had to defuse explosives in the wheel wells before they could move it, Dempsey said.

He added that he did not believe Wolfowitz was the target of the attack. Instead, he said, it was timed to discredit the U.S. opening of a key bridge over the Tigris River and the lifting of a nighttime curfew in the capital -- both in honor of the holy fasting month of Ramadan, which starts here Monday, and because of U.S. military assessments of improved security in Baghdad.

Asked if he still stands by those assessments, Dempsey answered, "Absolutely."

The Al Rasheed, which houses civilian occupation officials and U.S. military forces, is the downtown Baghdad district at the heart of the U.S.-led administration of Iraq, about a mile from the palace housing the coalition headquarters and the offices of interim Iraqi Governing Council.

The attackers drove the launcher to the edge of a park just 500 yards southwest of the hotel and quickly fled. Rockets suddenly ignited within the trailer, apparently on a timer, flashing toward the nearby hotel. Their impact resounded across central Baghdad.

Several security guards saw the attackers deposit the trailer and -- thinking they were abandoning a stalled car -- approached right before the missiles fired. At least three were injured by ignition blast, Iraqi police said.

Wolfowitz, expressing "profound sympathy" for the victims, said danger persists in Iraq "as long as there are criminals out there staging hit-and-run attacks."

A day earlier, only hours after the deputy secretary left the 4th Infantry Division base at Tikrit, north of Baghdad, a division helicopter crash-landed after insurgents fired a rocket-propelled grenade near the base. The Black Hawk pilot managed to maintain control after the hit and crash-landed, said division spokeswoman Maj. Jossyln Aberle. One crewmember was injured, she said. Two persons with the RPG launcher were captured, she said.

Also Sunday, a soldier from the 4th Infantry Division died Sunday from a non-hostile gunshot wound in the town of Baqouba, northwest of Baghdad, the military said. A total of 348 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq since the invasion was launched March 20.

An Iraqi police commander, who refused to give his name, said the attackers, in a white Chevrolet pickup, drove down a main road passing a few hundred yards from the hotel and stopped at the edge of the city's main Zawra Park and Zoo. Security guards of the new Facilities Protection Service spotted the activity.

"We approached him (the driver) to tell him to move the car. When he saw us, he fled," one of the injured guards, Jabbar Tarek, said at a nearby hospital.

As Tarek and others approached, the rockets fired off from the blue trailer, police said. Tarek said the guards weren't armed, or "I would have fired on him."

Later Sunday morning, U.S. soldiers could be seen removing at least two 3-foot-long rockets from the trailer.

"There is no guarantee we can protect against this kind of thing unless we have soldiers on every block," said Lt. Brian Dowd of Nanuet, N.Y., a 1st Armored Division reconnaissance officer at the scene.

Barely a mile away, the road crosses the Tigris River at the 14th of July Bridge, which U.S. authorities reopened Saturday for the first time since the city fell to American troops in April.

Iraqi security guard Dafer Jawad, 28, said that from the convention center he saw projectiles flying toward the hotel.

"There was a whooshing sound," he said. "One landed in the front of the hotel. I saw very heavy white smoke in front of the hotel.... Many people started rushing across from the hotel into the Convention Center."

The hotel also was attacked Sept. 27 with small rockets or rocket-propelled grenades, causing only minimal damage.

U.S. officials had warned that "Islamic extremists" planned to carry out a suicide bombing attack against an unspecified hotel in the city's Karrada district used by Westerners. But the warning did not specify a target, and the Al Rasheed is not in that district.

A car bomb on Oct. 12 against the Baghdad Hotel, also used by U.S. officials, killed eight people, including the bomber, but security measures prevented the vehicle from reaching the building before it exploded.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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