BAGHDAD — Insurgents exploded a cement mixer and two car bombs Monday in a spectacular series of suicide attacks on the Palestine Hotel, a base for many journalists in the Iraqi capital. Ten people were killed and 22 injured, the Interior Ministry said; most of the victims appeared to be Iraqis.
The first blast in the Firdos Square area went off around 5:20 p.m. when a vehicle rammed a 2-foot-thick protective concrete wall in front of the hotel and exploded, breaching the barrier, according to the U.S. military.
Minutes later, a Jeep Cherokee drove east from the square toward the Ministry of Agriculture. Iraqi police fired at the vehicle before it exploded near a mosque.
The cement mixer came seconds later, U.S. military officials said, rumbling through the hole in the hotel wall. A U.S. soldier fired at the truck, which faltered in the debris created by the first blast. Then it exploded in a massive plume of fire and smoke, hobbling a Bradley fighting vehicle, shattering windows a mile away and crumpling nearby cars like paper.
The blasts were filmed by several journalists who were in the hotel at the time; the facility is used by reporters from Associated Press and other Western media outlets.
Terrorism experts said the coordinated explosions around the square -- perhaps best known to Americans as the site where a statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled shortly after the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion -- were designed for maximum exposure.
"This demonstrates their resolve and courage to impact us, to create fear," said Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert with the Rand Corp., a Santa Monica-based think tank. "But it also is aimed at their own audience, their own constituents, to demonstrate their prowess to their own warrior subculture."
The blasts were among the largest and most spectacular in several months and were similar to other large-scale suicide operations this spring. In April, suicide bombers used a similar strategy to punch a hole through a wall protecting Camp Gannon, an isolated Marine base on the Syrian border. Insurgents tried to drive a fire engine through the gap, but detonated the truck without harming any troops.
Also that month, as many as 40 attackers armed with RPGs, mortars and guns marshaled an assault on Abu Ghraib prison that culminated with a tanker truck explosion meant to break the outer wall. U.S. troops ultimately repelled the assault, which left 44 Americans wounded. U.S. forces later said it was the most audacious, best-coordinated attack they had seen since the war began. The April attacks were videotaped by insurgents and posted on the Internet.
An hour after Monday's explosions, three craters were still smoldering. The bombs had lopped off the tops of several palm trees. Blackened cars, shot through by flying metal, stank of oil and burning rubber.
There was blood all over the street.
Ten women in black abayas sat on the curb in front of a house 25 feet away from the initial blast, shrieking in grief.
"Oh my God! Oh my God! I was always telling him not to go outside!" one woman wailed. "I wish I had died instead!"
Another woman got up and ran to a male relative who had just arrived. "Oh, Abu Ziad," she cried. "Bashir is dead!"
Ahmed Hassan, 66, peered through broken windows into his demolished tailoring shop. Desks were upturned and bashed to bits. Chunks of metal thrown by the bomb rested amid the debris. Hassan's shirt was blotched with blood.
After the first blast, "the plaster fell down and smashed my strong table. I went outside, but I heard shooting so -- thank God -- I went back inside," he said. "Somebody shouted at the driver: 'Stop! They will shoot!' And then another explosion. I felt something lift me up and throw me down."
Abu Mohammed, 45, who has a shop within sight of the Palestine, said the first explosion cut short the Muslim call to evening prayer.
"It was very huge -- it was the biggest explosion I have ever seen," he said. "It was much bigger than the other ones."
The Palestine Hotel has been targeted before -- by both U.S. forces and insurgents. In April 2003, an American tank fired on the hotel, killing two journalists. In November of that year, insurgent rockets struck the building and the Ishtar Hotel next door, commonly referred to as the Sheraton. The Ishtar also was hit by a mortar shell and a grenade in December 2003 and three rockets in July 2004.
Although the Interior Ministry said 10 people were killed in Monday's blasts, other sources offered different tallies in the hours immediately after the attacks. The U.S. military said in a statement that six people had died; on the scene, an Iraqi police officer and others said that as many as 20 had died.
There was also some confusion about the sequence of the first two bombs. Iraqi security forces and witnesses said the hotel wall might have been breached by the second blast, rather than the first as the U.S. military reported.
The death toll might have been much higher if the cement truck had gotten closer to the hotel entrance. Several people inside suffered cuts, and the hallways were filled with dust.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists denounced the bombings.
"These appalling attacks are fresh reminders of the myriad dangers facing those who continue to report from Iraq," CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Iraqi police announced that they had discovered the bodies of 12 Shiite laborers Sunday in Baghdad, and Monday they found another body -- blindfolded, handcuffed and mutilated.
Coalition forces said that a Marine had been shot to death in Ramadi on Sunday, bringing to 1,997 the number of U.S. military personnel killed in the Iraq theater since the 2003 invasion.