BAGHDAD, Iraq – Insurgents penetrated Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone and detonated explosives at a market and a popular cafe Thursday, killing 10 people, including four American civilians, in the first bombings inside the compound housing the U.S. and Iraqi government headquarters.
A top Iraqi official said the attacks appeared to have been suicide bombings. The attack was a bold assault on the heart of the U.S.-Iraqi leadership of the country and a district seen as one of the few relatively safe refuges for Americans in the capital.
Witnesses said two men, each carrying a backpack but not required ID badges, entered the Green Zone Cafe full of Americans and other patrons at around lunchtime, drank tea and talked to each other for nearly half an hour — one of them appearing to reassure his more nervous colleague.
One of them then left and soon after an explosion was heard, then the man who remained in the cafe detonated his bomb moments later, ripping through the building, said an Iraqi vendor who was in the cafe at the time. A bomb was found and defused at the same cafe last week.
Tawhid and Jihad, the militant group of Jordanian terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi claimed responsibility for the blasts, saying they were “martyrdom” or suicide attacks.
Also Thursday, two U.S. soldiers were killed in Baghdad, one in a roadside bombing in the morning and the second in a shooting in the afternoon, the military said. As of Wednesday, 1,081 U.S. servicemen had been killed in Iraq since March 2003, according to a Defense Department count.
The Green Zone, a district of former Saddam Hussein palaces in a bend of the Tigris River, was set up under the U.S. occupation to house Americans involved in the administration. It came to resemble a suburban “Little America” in central Baghdad — with green lawns, restaurants, American television, U.S. area codes, even at least one swimming pool set up behind barricades and multiple checkpoints.
Since the June handover of sovereignty, the Iraqi government has set up its offices there, but hundreds of Americans remain as part of the U.S. Embassy. In the increasing violence of recent months, the American civilians rarely leave the Green Zone. Around 10,000 Iraqis also live within the four square-mile zone, residents of the apartment buildings that had to be included within the perimeter. They need IDs to move in and out of the area.
Thursday’s attack raised fears over security in the compound and underscored militants’ ability to strike in the capital even as U.S.-Iraqi forces are carrying out a new offensive to suppress them in other parts of the country ahead of January elections.
Insurgents have frequently fired mortar rounds at the compound, and there have been a number of deadly car bombings at its gates. But this was the first time a bomb was successfully brought in and detonated.
In the wake of the bombings, the embassy warned Americans to limit their movements in the Green Zone and stay away from the market and restaurants.
The U.S. military announced increased armed patrols in and around the Green Zone, at the airport and other checkpoints, and combat air patrols and air surveillance.
The new measures followed intelligence reports that insurgents are planning to to launch attacks “to gain media attention,” the statement said. “Anti-Iraqi forces are trying to create the perception of instability in Iraq and thereby disrupt the upcoming Iraqi elections.”
In Thursday’s attacks, one bomb ripped through Vendors’ Alley, an outdoor bazaar that caters to Westerners, selling everything from mobile phone accessories to pornographic DVDs.
The second blast took place at the Green Zone Cafe. Witnesses said around 20 other patrons were in the cafe at the time, about half of them American.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the bazaar bombing killed four Americans and wounded another contractor and two State Department employees. The cafe blast killed six Iraqis and wounded an American contractor.
The U.S. military said 20 people were wounded. U.S. officials in Washington said the four slain Americans were employees of the private U.S. security firm DynCorp.
Boucher said it was still not clear whether the bombings were suicide attacks. “The kind of explosion and damage is new, but it’s not the first time that that … people tried to attack the Green Zone, because that is where a lot of this activity related to Iraqi reconstruction is going on.” he said, pointing to past rocket attacks.
Iraq’s national security adviser Qassem Dawoud said “initial information” indicated the attacks were suicide bombings.
An Iraqi vendor who was in the cafe at the time of the blast said the two men believed to be the bombers “walked into the restaurant carrying two large handbags.”
One of the men appeared shaken and nervous and the other appeared to be “reassuring him to do something, but we could not hear what it was,” said the Iraqi, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared it becoming known he works in the Green Zone.
He said he and another companion attempted to inquire about the two men when they started suspecting them. The waiter who took the men’s orders said they spoke in a Jordanian accent.
One of the men left the building, took a taxi and a couple of minutes later “we heard a loud boom.”
“It was then that the second bomber blew himself up,” the witness said, struggling to hear the questions after the explosion had marred his hearing. “I fell on the floor, then quickly gathered myself and ran for my life.”
Mohammed al-Obeidi, the owner of a nearby restaurant who was wounded by flying glass from the cafe blast, said security in the zone has weakened since Iraqi police took a greater role with the June handover of power.
“Before it was really safe. They (the Americans) passed it over to the Iraqis … the Iraqi Police. When they see someone they know, it’s just, ‘Go on in.’ They don’t understand it’s for our safety,” al-Obeidi said.
The Tawhid and Jihad group, led by the Jordanian al-Zarqawi, has claimed a series of bloody bombings across the country as well as the kidnapping and beheading of a number of foreign hostages — including three Americans.
Another group, the Ansar al-Sunnah Army posted a video Thursday on the Web showing the beheading of a man identified as a Turkish driver.
Meanwhile, city leaders in the Sunni insurgent stronghold of Fallujah said they were suspending peace talks with the Iraqi government because of what they called an “impossible” government demand that they hand over al-Zarqawi
U.S. warplanes on Thursday struck at least three sites in the insurgent-held city of Fallujah that the command said were being used by followers of al-Zarqawi. At least five people were killed and 16 wounded in all, according to Fallujah General Hospital.
Iraq’s Green Zone Turns Redder by the Day