Scores trapped as blast wrecks Baghdad hotel, killing many guests

By Robert Fisk in Baghdad

18 March 2004

A massive explosion destroyed the Jebel al-Lubnan hotel in central Baghdad last night, killing many guests and staff.

Eyewitnesses said that westerners were staying at the hotel, scarcely 500 yards from the statue of Saddam Hussein which was pulled down in front of the world's television cameras when US forces entered the city last April. The bombing follows the killing of seven westerners and an unknown number of Iraqis over the past four days.

Many people were reported to be trapped under rubble and a huge fire broke out. Iraqi police and American troops cordoned off the area as ambulances took dozens of wounded to hospital. Reporters living close to the hotel said that the walls of their offices shook - one American journalist said that he was literally blown from his chair by the detonation.

Trees were on fire, and flames jumped to nearby buildings. Bricks, air conditioners, furniture, wires and other debris was blown hundreds of meters from the hotel.

The cause of the blast was not immediately known. Iraqi police said it was a car bomb, although the Iraqi deputy interior minister said it was a rocket attack.

Like many smaller hotels close to the Palestine Hotel, the base for major international news agencies, the Jebel al Lubnan had little security and depended on anonymity for its protection. For days now, the authorities have feared guerrilla strikes at "soft'' targets to prove American cannot maintain security a year after the invasion. The explosion occurred during the United States' huge troop rotation - the largest in American military history -- when up to 250,000 US soldiers are in Iraq.

Bodies were still being pulled from the blaze last night and the hotel itself was burning an hour after the blast. In the darkness US helicopters were circling. "I ran down the street and saw many, many people killed. There were children dead," said Raad Abdul Karim, 30.