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TURMOIL IN IRAQ

Baghdad Bomb Had the Mark of Experts

August 21, 2003|Patrick J. McDonnell and Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — The bomb that devastated the United Nations complex in Baghdad was a potent blend of Soviet-era artillery shells, mortar rounds and grenades packed around a powerful centerpiece -- a 500-pound bomb meant to be dropped from an aircraft, the FBI said Wednesday.

Although the explosives are widely available in armament-strewn Iraq, the bomb's structure suggests a high level of expertise, authorities said.

"This was not a homemade bomb," said Thomas Fuentes, the FBI official heading the investigation. "We're talking about highly powerful, military-grade munitions."

Investigators are considering a wide array of potential attackers, including Saddam Hussein loyalists, foreign and domestic terrorist groups and religious extremists -- or some combination of these and others enraged at the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq.

The use of weaponry once part of the largely Soviet-equipped Iraqi arsenal strongly suggests a connection to Hussein loyalists.

The munitions were standard issue and would have been relatively easy to obtain for any Iraqi close to the nation's former security apparatus. And many former military men in Iraq are well trained in explosives and sabotage.

The FBI said it was too early to say whether the bombing was a purely Iraqi operation or involved foreign collaborators. At the least, the sheer size of the bomb suggested an operation involving several people.

The proliferation of munitions in Iraq underscores a deep irony: While no one has yet found the alleged weapons of mass destruction that were the catalyst for the war to topple Hussein's regime, the easy availability of high-powered explosives provides anti-U.S. militants with an almost limitless supply of conventional weaponry with which to wreak considerable havoc and destruction.

The audacity and precision of Tuesday's attack also suggest a foreign hand, according to several Iraqis.

"There is a feeling, based on accumulated data from the past, that it is the remnants of Saddam's regime and their 'friends' " who staged the attack, said Ahmad Chalabi, a member of the fledgling Iraqi Governing Council, at a news conference Wednesday.

Chalabi did not offer evidence of his claim.

Officials with the Governing Council, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that U.S. as well as Iraqi officials had intelligence that Hussein loyalists and Muslim extremists had met about a week before the bombing and planned a large attack on a "soft target" in Baghdad.

Chalabi said the information was detailed.

"The information specifically said the attack would use a truck and would be carried out by using a suicide mechanism or by remote control," he said.

A Pentagon spokeswoman said officials there and at the U.S. Central Command were unaware of any notification by Chalabi of a potential terrorist threat.

Tuesday's massive blast -- the second in Baghdad in less than two weeks -- added to the debate here over the extent to which foreign fighters have joined the campaign against U.S.-led forces.

L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. administrator in Iraq, said this month that several hundred operatives from the Islamic extremist group Ansar al Islam -- who fled their bases in northern Iraq during the war -- have slipped back into the country since May 1, and that radical Iranians and suspected members of the Al Qaeda terrorist network have also entered. Some have used passports from Sudan, Yemen and Syria, according to Bremer.

The U.N. bombing was "of a different scale than the ones we've seen here before," he said after the attack.

"It does not mean ... that we can exclude the possibility that the Fedayeen Saddam [militia] or some of the old Saddam guys did it," he said. "They had very substantial explosives capabilities in parts of their intelligence services, and it's not impossible that it was done by them."

The degree to which foreign and home-grown groups cooperate remains a matter of debate. An emerging theory is that well-armed former Baath Party militants may now be teaming up with Islamic extremists from outside the country who see occupied Iraq as the new battleground against the West.

Body parts discovered amid the truck wreckage point to a suicide mission in Tuesday's attack, the FBI said, but officials were awaiting forensic examination of samples that were to be sent to the United States.

Another possibility is that the lethal package went off somewhat prematurely, not giving the driver or others in the truck time to escape.

Several Iraqis interviewed, including police Maj. Riad Kadhm, whose precinct is participating in the U.S.-led inquiry, said it was not likely that many Iraqis would eagerly take on a suicide mission.

There is no tradition of suicide bombings in Iraq. The intense religious zeal, for example, that motivates some Palestinian suicide bombers has not materialized here to the same degree; in fact, several recent fatwas, or religious edicts, have instructed Muslim Iraqis to remain calm.

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