From The Scene
Volley of Rockets Shatters a Life and Images of Stability
By David Ignatius
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 27, 2003; Page A14
BAGHDAD, Oct. 26 -- The al-Rashid Hotel quaked when a volley of rockets battered its walls early Sunday morning. This reporter was in a room seven doors down the hall from where a missile hit the room of a U.S. soldier, who was killed. A loud explosion shook my room, followed by several others. Crouching by the window, I saw one of the rockets roar up toward the hotel, leaving a trail of sparks and smoke before it detonated a few stories below.
The attack came as Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz was in the hotel just one floor above where the soldier was killed. Wolfowitz was on a three-day visit to Iraq that had been designed to underscore Iraq's stability -- an upbeat image shaken by the rocket blasts.
Wolfowitz was unhurt, and continued with a Sunday schedule that included a visit to a Baghdad police station and a military patrol of the neighborhood near where the attackers had fired their missiles.
"This terrorist act will not deter us from completing our mission, which is to help the Iraqi people free themselves from the type of criminals who did this," Wolfowitz told reporters three hours after the attack. He argued that "the big news" was not the rocket attack on his hotel, but "that Iraqis are fighting and killing these people."
Despite Wolfowitz's optimism, the attack on the hotel -- home to visiting dignitaries and members of the U.S. occupation authority -- illustrated the vulnerability of American occupation forces here and the insecurity that continues to plague Baghdad seven months after the U.S.-led invasion to topple President Saddam Hussein.
From the window, I could see the blue vehicle from which the rockets had been fired. It was parked several hundred yards away, just on the other side of the concrete barrier that separates the al-Rashid from the surrounding Baghdad neighborhood.
When the firing stopped, I went down the hall to Room 1124, where one of the rockets had exploded. The wooden furniture inside had been shattered by the explosion and a water pipe had burst, sending water gushing ankle-deep into the hall.
Another reporter traveling with Wolfowitz, Stephen F. Hayes of the Weekly Standard, entered the room and found the soldier slumped in a chair in a corner, seriously wounded from shrapnel and broken glass. A medic arrived soon and began treating him. He later died. His identity had not been released Sunday pending notification of next of kin.
Blood spots marked the stairway as the 17 wounded made their way down to the lobby. I saw Wolfowitz there, before security aides took him to a shelter. He was unhurt and seemed angry but otherwise unfazed by the attack.
Wolfowitz lunched later with soldiers from the Army's 1st Armored Division, who had captured the makeshift rocket launcher. It had been hidden in a freshly painted blue electrical-generator vehicle parked near the hotel about 15 minutes before the attack and fired by a battery-operated timer, Army officers said.
The rest of Wolfowitz's day was taken up with meetings that had been arranged earlier to underscore his strategy of seeking to improve stability by giving Iraqis greater responsibility for security. He met in the morning with newly retrained Iraqi police in the New Baghdad neighborhood, where his host was Iraq's deputy interior minister, Ahmed Ibrahim, a career police officer who was imprisoned under Hussein.
"We are sure we can control Baghdad and all Iraq," Ibrahim said. But he said the country would need to expand its police force from 40,000 to 70,000, and that the process would take two years.
Wolfowitz also met with members of the newly created Baghdad Citizens' Advisory Councils, composed of about 800 Iraqis. He talked, as well, with a senior Shiite religious leader and met with a group of women's activists.
At every stop he repeated his pitch that Iraqis must take responsibility for their country. "The fight is going to be won at the end of the day by the Iraqi people," he told reporters Sunday afternoon, after visiting five critically wounded victims of the rocket attack. A few hours later, Wolfowitz departed for Washington.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company