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Iraqi Bomb Suspect Is Arrested

The detainee is accused of planning the Baghdad blast that killed eight on New Year's Eve.

March 18, 2004|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — On the same day a car bombing wreaked havoc in central Baghdad, the U.S. Army on Wednesday arrested a suspect in the New Year's Eve bombing of a popular restaurant frequented by Westerners.

The suspect was part of a group that apparently planned and carried out the car bombing to express its hatred of Westerners and loyalty to Saddam Hussein, officers said. He is the first person arrested in the case, they said.

"They didn't like Westerners, and this is the way they chose to show it," said Lt. Col. Peter Jones, a battalion commander in the 1st Armored Division who dispatched a platoon-sized unit to capture the suspect on a side street in the bustling Karada neighborhood.

The restaurant, Nabil, had been threatened in the weeks before the bombing after management refused to play a song dedicated to Hussein, officials said. The plotters also might have been angered that the Christian-run restaurant served liquor to foreigners, officials added.

The suspect was identified as Ammar Batta, 36, but officials said this might be a pseudonym or nickname. Batta offered no resistance as he was arrested outside a cellular telephone shop. His family told authorities that he was a truck driver.

A search of his house yielded possibly incriminating material, the Army said, including pictures of Batta posing next to burned-out vehicles that may belong to the coalition.

The Army was investigating possible links to outside terrorist groups, but several officials said the bombing appeared to be an all-Iraqi plot with ties to supporters of the old regime.

The suspect was identified as the planner of the attack and someone who helped prepare the car bomb, officials said.

The bomb -- with 500 pounds of explosives -- was detonated on a side street outside Nabil shortly after 9 p.m. on Dec. 31 as patrons celebrated the upcoming new year. The restaurant was leveled and a nearby house badly damaged, while the force of the blast blew out windows more than 100 yards away.

The eight killed were all Iraqis, including a pregnant woman and her husband.

The more than 20 injured included three Los Angeles Times reporters, four Iraqi employees of The Times' Baghdad Bureau and the fiancee of one of The Times' Iraqi staffers. All are in various stages of recuperation.

An official said it appeared that the driver had remotely detonated the device after he left the car. The bomb apparently went off prematurely, killing the driver as he walked away, the official said. The driver was identified as a resident of Ramadi.

A series of car bombings -- both suicide and remotely detonated blasts -- has struck Baghdad since last summer. Officials suspect that loyalists of Hussein's former Baath Party may have forged an alliance with foreign terrorist groups to carry out the attacks.

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