Blast Devastates U.N. Baghdad Offices

Suicide Bomber Strikes Jerusalem Bus; Chief Envoy, At Least 16 Others Dead

Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
August 19, 2003

BAGHDAD, Aug. 19 -- A truck bomb exploded outside U.N. headquarters here today, killing at least 17 people, including U.N. special representative Sergio Vieira de Mello, in one of the deadliest attacks ever directed at a U.N. facility.

Witnesses said that at about 4:30 p.m., a cement truck crashed into a security wall under construction on one side of the Canal Hotel, which has served as U.N. headquarters since 1991. The explosion brought down the entire corner of the three-story building where Vieira de Mello's office was located, sending flames, smoke and dust high into the air and leaving a five-foot-deep, 15-foot-wide crater. It also heavily damaged the National Spinal Cord Injury Center hospital and a tourism training institute next door and scattered pieces of the truck's twisted chassis up to 200 yards away.

Red Crescent ambulances and U.S. military helicopters ferried dozens of wounded workers, guards, visitors and patients from the spinal hospital to medical facilities throughout Baghdad. American soldiers, Iraqi police and fire rescue workers dug with their bare hands to find survivors and bodies.

President Bush, speaking at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., called those behind the bombing "enemies of the civilized world." In a statement issued at U.N. headquarters in New York, Secretary General Kofi Annan called the death of Vieira de Mello "a bitter blow for the UnitedNations and for me personally."

The attack was the deadliest on a U.N. facility since Israeli forces, responding to an assault by the Lebanese group Hezbollah, bombarded a U.N. compound at Qana in southern Lebanon in April 1996, killing 91 refugees.

Mohammed Shaker, an Iraqi journalist who was attending a news conference inside the building , said he saw 15 corpses as he retreated from the building, and at least 20 seriously wounded people. The Associated Press reported 20 deaths.

"There was an enormous amount of explosives in what we believed to be a large truck," said Bernard Kerik, a former New York City police commissioner who is working to reestablish Baghdad's police force. "We have evidence to suggest it could have been a suicide attack."

Bombing attacks have escalated steadily across Iraq since June, when the use of roadside bombs to attack U.S. forces first became commonplace. In recent weeks, bombs have been used not only against troops but Iraqi infrastructure and other nonmilitary targets. On Aug. 7, a car bomb destroyed the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad, killing 17. Over the past week, two bombs damaged sections of a key oil pipeline that runs to Turkey, and saboteurs blew up a water main in a north Baghdad neighborhood.

At dusk today, L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator of Iraq, inspected the rubble outside the building, walking through the 30-yard gap torn in the perimeter wall. Tears rimmed his eyes when he recognized Ghassan Salame, an assistant of Vieira de Mello's. They embraced. "The people who did this will be found," Bremer said. Pieces of the building suddenly cascaded to the ground, and bystanders shouted "Watch out!" at Bremer.

Later, Bremer issued a statement of condolences and defiance. "Today I lost a friend," he said of Vieira de Mello, 55, a Brazilian who had served the UnitedNations since 1969 in such trouble spots as East Timor, Yugoslavia, Cambodia and Bangladesh.

"He worked tirelessly and devotedly to bring freedom and democracy to this damaged and traumatized country," Bremer said. "We will honor that legacy and honor his memory with an unswerving commitment to his goals and his vision."

Akila Hashimi, a member of Iraq's U.S.-appointed Governing Council who accompanied Bremer to the building, declared: "We are shocked but not surprised. All the Iraqi people are subject to these kind of cowardly attacks."

There were no assertions of responsibility for the attack, and the question of who has carried out the various bombings around the country remains unanswered. U.S. officials attribute most of the attacks to remnants of deposed president Saddam Hussein's government and his supporters. Most assaults on occupation forces have taken place in central Iraq, a largely Sunni Muslim region that was Hussein's principal power base.

But U.S. officials are speaking more and more about the possibility that foreigners have infiltrated Iraq to join the fight against the U.S.-led occupation. In remarks published today in the London-based Arabic-language newspaper Al Hayat, Bremer accused Syria of permitting "terrorists" to cross its borders into Iraq and said he was "still worried" about Iranian meddling in Iraqi affairs.

"We held talks with the Syrians in this regard. We hope to see better cooperation in the future," he told the newspaper. As for Iran, he declared: "This is irresponsible conduct and runs counter to Iraq's interests. We believe that a free Iraq must not be subject to any interference by its neighbors."

Many international aid organizations have kept their distance from Iraq, partly because the UnitedNations does not play a central role in rebuilding or governing the country and partly because of the danger. Hashimi, the Governing Council member, urged the UnitedNations to "stay and continue" its work.

Over the past dozen years, the U.N. role in Iraq has ranged from searching for weapons of mass destruction to feeding millions of destitute people. Despite prewar tensions between the UnitedNations and the Bush administration over the justification for invading Iraq, Vieira de Mello had lobbied for U.N. recognition of the Governing Council -- which was granted last week -- and had recently traveled to Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, Iran and Egypt looking for support.

In July, Vieira de Mello warned of danger. "The U.N. presence in Iraqi remains vulnerable to anyone who would seek to target our organization," he said. That month, a rocket-propelled grenade was fired at U.N. headquarters from a nearby highway. There was no damage or injury.

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil said Vieira de Mello was a "victim of the insanity of terrorism," and he decreed three days of official mourning for a man who was the country's most prominent international diplomat in decades.

[In New York tonight, the UnitedNations released the names of seven other victims whose families had been notified, the Reuters news agency reported. The dead included Rick Hooper, an American working for the department of political affairs, and Chris Klein-Beckman, a Canadian who served as program coordinator for UNICEF.]

Witnesses inside the compound said a lone assailant wearing a white T-shirt was driving the truck that plowed into the outer wall. U.S. troops were guarding the main entrance to the building, and it was not immediately known if any were hurt.

It was impossible to ascertain whether the bomber's target was specifically Vieira de Mello's office or whether he simply aimed for the point where the new perimeter wall passed closest to the building. Salim Lone, a U.N. spokesman, suggested that the killer calculated his attack to, in effect, assassinate the special representative. "I guess it was targeted for that," he said. "It was a pretty huge bomb. His office and those around it no longer exist. It's all rubble."

Videotape taken inside the building showed panicked survivors staggering past a staircase, some bleeding from the head, apparently cut by broken glass. A generator restored light to the building, easing the escape of many. "People were breaking through doors and jumping out of windows. I tried to tell myself not to be afraid, but it was hard," said Hussain Querishi, a security guard.

As word of the bombing spread in Baghdad, relatives of U.N. workers gathered outside the complex awaiting word about the dead and injured. They rushed forward as U.S. soldiers bore stretchers of wounded victims to helicopters that ferried patients to American combat field hospitals.

"My niece! My niece! Why don't you let me go find her?" a Kurdish woman screamed at an impassive soldier blocking the way to the headquarters. "I hate Saddam. I hate this life. I hate what is happening," cried the woman, who works for the World Food Program.

Ahmed Sudami, a security guard, emerged with blood on his shoulder and told bystanders that they were being kept away for the safety of the wounded, who lay helpless with crushed legs and arms. "If someone wants to shoot the Americans, they can shoot them outside. Not in this house of peace," he said.

An elderly man, Hassan Ali, emerged from the spinal cord hospital in a wheelchair to beg for help evacuating patients inside. "Many are trapped. The ceiling fell in, so many cannot walk," he cried, his right leg shaking uncontrollably from his affliction.

The hospital's director, Kadar Chalabi, said that collapsed ceilings injured eight of his patients. "I never worried about being close to the U.N.," he said. "I never thought it would be a target. Nothing like this, anyway."

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