Brazen attacks target hotels, oil ministry in Baghdad

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) — More than a dozen rockets fired from donkey carts slammed into Iraq’s Oil Ministry and two downtown hotels Friday morning — brazen, coordinated strikes at some of Baghdad’s most heavily protected civilian sites that defied a U.S. crackdown.

Two more rocket launchers mounted on donkey carts were found within hours, one of them 30 yards from the Italian Embassy, the other near the Academy of Fine Arts, both in the Waziriya neighborhood north of downtown. Neither appeared to have been fired.

One man was carried away bleeding from the Palestine Hotel, where many foreign journalists and U.S. workers are staying. No other casualties were reported at the Palestine or the Sheraton Hotel across the street, and police said no one was hurt at the ministry.

“This is the work of terrorists,” said Loay Yunis Khalil, manager of the Palestine Hotel.

Elsewhere, a U.S. soldier from the 82nd Airborne Division was killed and two were injured near the city of Ramadi, west of Baghdad, on Thursday when a roadside bomb exploded next to their convoy, the military said Friday.

To the south, in the city of Karbala, at least four mortar shells were fired into a Thai military camp Thursday, officials in Bangkok said Friday. They reported no casualties.

Attackers used the colorful donkey carts presumably because they are so common in Baghdad and attract little attention from security forces on alert for car bombs. Painted on one of the carts was a traditional inscription: “My heart is with you, my dear.”

After the explosions, U.S. soldiers were seen searching donkey carts around Baghdad.

The Baghdad attacks occurred at the height of “Operation Iron Hammer,” the U.S. military counteroffensive against rebels in and around the capital. The U.S. commander in the capital, Brig. Gen. Martin Dempsey, said Thursday that the 12-day crackdown had contributed to a 70 percent decrease in rebel activity.

The rocket attacks appeared intended to demonstrate that the operation hasn’t defeated the rebels. Nobody claimed responsibility and there were no immediate reports of arrests.

The attacks both occurred about 7:20 a.m. At least eight rockets were fired at the Oil Ministry, but only two of them detonated, Col. Peter Mansoor of the U.S. 1st Armored Division said.

The ministry was closed Friday for the Muslim day of prayer. A ministry official told Dow Jones Newswires that a fire was quickly extinguished and caused no major damage to the building. He said oil production would not be affected.

Mansoor said one rocket hit the Palestine Hotel, but at least five rocket holes could be seen on the eighth, 15th and 16th floors of the 18-story structure. Another rocket hit the Sheraton.

Ziyad, a 25-year-old Iraqi man who was staying with his bride Rownaq at the Palestine for their wedding night, was two doors down from one of the areas hit on the 15th floor.

“We were sleeping when we heard the sound of a rocket,” he said. “This is our wedding present.”

Employees of U.S. agencies met in the Palestine lobby for impromptu security briefings from military consultants.

At least one man was injured at the Palestine Hotel, and was carried away by U.S. military medics on a stretcher. He was bleeding from his head. Mansoor confirmed one injury, but didn’t know the man’s nationality or more details about him.

He said the attacks bore a close resemblance to a strike last month on the Al-Rasheed Hotel, just across the Tigris River, which housed many U.S. military officials and occupation authorities. One soldier was killed at the Al-Rasheed, which has since been evacuated.

“It was similar to the attack on the Rasheed Hotel,” he said. “Same type of techniques.”

Police and soldiers found a rocket launcher on Saadoun Street, which runs beside the Palestine, hidden inside a donkey cart.

Iraqi police 1st Lt. Amar Arshad said the launcher had the capacity to fire 30 rockets. It was unclear how many were launched, but five unfired rockets sat in the launcher.

Mansoor said another rocket-launcher, also on a donkey cart, was found near the Oil Ministry. Iraq’s police chief, Gen. Ahmed Ibrahim, said the attacks were carried out by “mere terrorists.”

“They depend on animals to kill people. Even the animals are not safe from them,” he said. “They want to steal freedom from the Iraqi people, but we will chase them down.”

Witnesses reported hearing five explosions at the Oil Ministry, and thick black smoke poured from the heavily guarded compound. Fire trucks moved about the grounds. Ibrahim said no one was injured.

The Sheraton and Palestine hotels once belonged to international chains, but both are operated by Iraqis.

The hotels are among the best-protected in Baghdad, with several security checkpoints on the approaches, blast barriers on surrounding streets and U.S. armored personnel carriers stationed outside. They stand in front of Firdaus Square, where Iraqis famously toppled a statue of Saddam Hussein on April 9.

The Palestine Hotel, which housed most foreign journalists in Iraq during the war, was shelled by a U.S. tank on April 8, killing two cameramen, one from Spain and one from Ukraine. The U.S. Army has called the shooting justified.

The attacks came a day after a truck bomb exploded near a Kurdish party office in the northern oil city of Kirkuk, killing five people and wounding 30 in an attack local officials blamed on Islamic extremists linked to al-Qaida.

The powerful explosion shattered windows and damaged doors at the two-story, yellow-and-green building of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. It also blew out windows of a nearby radio-television station.

At about the same time, twin suicide truck bombs in Istanbul, Turkey, exploded at a London-based bank and the British consulate. At least 27 people were killed and nearly 450 were wounded.