By Ernesto Londoño and Leila Fadel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 26, 2010; A01
BAGHDAD -- Suicide bombers targeted high-profile hotels in Baghdad on Monday, killing at least 36 people and wounding dozens, in the latest in a series of coordinated attacks thought to have been carried out by Sunni insurgents determined to discredit the Shiite-led government as the U.S. military withdraws.
The blasts suggest that a weakened insurgency, battling the government under the banner of al-Qaeda in Iraq, has chosen to carry out a smaller number of more powerful and more sophisticated attacks that target prominent, fortified compounds in the capital. In the past, the group frequently targeted Shiite civilians in easy-to-access areas such as markets in an effort to stoke sectarian violence.
By striking at hotels that house Western journalists and nongovernmental organizations, insurgents appeared to broaden their scope, sending a message to foreigners to stay out as parliamentary elections loom just weeks away. The Hamra and Sheraton hotels, both of which were hit Monday, are iconic buildings in post-invasion Iraq that are associated with the flood of foreign journalists who traveled here to cover the war.
Monday's bombings coincided with the execution of a cousin of Saddam Hussein known as Chemical Ali, who was convicted of orchestrating poison gas attacks that killed more than 5,000 Kurds in 1988. His death marked the end of a painful chapter in Iraq's history, but the bombings confirmed that a struggle for power is still being waged between Sunni extremists marginalized after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and the Shiite-dominated government that came to power after Hussein was deposed.
Both the insurgents and the Iraqi government see the weeks leading to the March 7 parliamentary elections as a key period to prove their mettle. Extremists want to make a U.S.-backed, democratic Iraq untenable so they can return to power; Iraqi government leaders want to show that they can maintain security as the U.S. military draws down.
Monday's bombings occurred shortly before 4 p.m. and targeted the Sheraton, Babylon and Hamra hotels, all of which are located in high-security compounds that have been popular among Westerners. The Washington Post's bureau is in the Hamra Hotel compound. Three of the newspaper's Iraqi employees were wounded. Several other Western news organizations have offices in or near the Hamra and the Sheraton.
The bombings were carried out in close succession. The Sheraton, no longer run by the namesake hotel chain, was the first location targeted. The Babylon, which is nearby and also on the banks of the Tigris River, was hit next.
Minutes later, two men walked up to one of the two checkpoints that lead to the Hamra, according to witnesses. One of the men was dressed in a brown suit. Using pistols, the assailants opened fire on the four guards at the checkpoint, witnesses said. "That forced the guards to the rear," said a compound security supervisor who witnessed the ambush.
One of the assailants lifted the security barrier at the checkpoint, allowing a white minivan packed with explosives to enter. As the vehicle weaved through concrete barriers at the entrance, one of the guards shot the driver, apparently killing him and causing the vehicle to stop roughly 40 yards inside the compound but 50 yards from the hotel building. "That's why we're alive today," said the security manager, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The security manager said an accomplice acting as a lookout must have detonated the explosives remotely after realizing the driver had been shot. The blast left a crater roughly 10 feet deep and 75 feet around. It caused houses to crumble and shattered most of the hotel's windows.
Gen. Hussein Kamal, the head of intelligence at the Interior Ministry, said Monday night that officials had received reports about threats to hotels. He said officials alerted the Babylon Hotel management that suicide bombers might strike there to target politicians meeting inside.
After the blast at the Hamra, as Iraqi soldiers and policemen secured the scene, Ahmed Attiyah, 36, wept uncontrollably. He held identification cards belonging to a dead friend. Attiyah said he saw half of his friend's body on the ground after the blast. He knew who it was, he said, because he recognized the jacket.
Wissam Mahmoud, who works in the Hamra, said he saw the shootout from a hotel balcony. The explosion threw him across the room. "I thought this was the safest place in Baghdad," said Mahmoud, his arm in a sling. "No place is safe."
A U.S. military team responded to the scene nearly four hours after the blast.
The patrol commander, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, suggested that insurgents picked the hotels because government buildings have become heavily fortified in the wake of coordinated explosions in August, October and December that killed hundreds and left key ministries in shambles.
Ali al-Adeeb, a lawmaker close to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, blamed the attacks on remnants of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. "They are trying to stop the political process," he said. "They targeted the media offices so the bombings would echo."
He said he doubted the attacks were carried out in response to the execution of Chemical Ali, whose real name was Ali Hassan al-Majeed. But government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said he thought the two were linked.
Iraqi officials have in recent months taken down concrete barriers along prominent streets, including areas near compounds where journalists are based, because they say the structures are no longer necessary in a country where security has improved. After failing to persuade the officials to keep the barriers up, some Western news organizations have opted for more secure locales.
Several days ago, an Iraqi commander from the Baghdad Operations Command arrived at the Hamra compound and ordered that the guards abandon their checkpoints and that blast walls be removed. After journalists protested and sought help from U.S. and Iraqi officials, the Iraqi commander was overruled.
Special correspondent Qais Mizher contributed to this report.