Image: Rescued Iraqi
Scott Peterson  /  Getty Images Contributor
Emergency workers rescue a man after a suicide car bomb attack in Baghdad on Friday.
NBC News and news services
updated 11/18/2005 6:08:35 PM ET 2005-11-18T23:08:35

Suicide bombers struck in eastern Iraq and the capital on Friday, killing at least 74 Shiite worshippers near the Iranian border and eight Iraqis at a hotel — the second attack against a compound housing Western media and contractors in less than a month.

At sunset, hours after the nearly simultaneous bombings of two mosques in the border town of Khanaqin, dozens of people were still searching for relatives and friends. Others collected shredded copies of the Muslim holy book, the Quran.

One survivor, Omar Saleh, said he was on his knees bowing in prayer when the bomb exploded at the Grand Mosque.

“The roof fell on us and the place was filled with dead bodies,” Saleh, 73, said from his hospital bed.

The bloodshed came as the United Nations’ top human rights official added her voice to calls for an international inquiry into allegations that Iraq’s U.S.-backed government tortures and abuses prisoners — including Sunni Arab insurgents.

The attack in Khanaqin was ominous because it took place in a largely peaceful area about six miles from Iran. So few incidents have occurred there that Iraqi authorities believe they can soon take over security responsibilities from the U.S.-led coalition. That assumption has now been called into question.

It was the deadliest attack since Sept. 29, when three suicide car bombers struck in the mostly Shiite town of Balad just north of Baghdad, killing at least 99 people.

On Friday, the suicide bombers wandered into the Sheik Murad mosque and the Grand Mosque during noon prayers and detonated explosives strapped to their bodies, police and survivors said. The blasts ripped down part of the Grand Mosque’s roof and heavily damaged the other place of worship.

Slideshow: Explosions in Iraq

Salem Ali Mohammed, 32, said he was in the Grand Mosque’s washroom when he heard a strong explosion. “I thought a rocket had hit the mosque,” he said. “I walked toward the prayer room and saw that the ceiling had collapsed and dead bodies were everywhere.”

Kamran Ahmed, director of the Khanaqin General Hospital, said 74 people were killed and at least 100 were wounded at the mosques, which are more than a half-mile apart in the largely Kurdish town about 90 miles northeast of Baghdad. American soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division sent medical specialists and supplies to the town.

In Baghdad, the attack on the Hamra hotel began about 8:12 a.m. when a white van exploded along the concrete blast wall protecting the compound, blowing a hole in the barrier. Less than a minute later, a water tanker packed with explosives plowed through the breach in an apparent bid to reach the hotel buildings.

Eight Iraqis killed in Baghdad
But the driver — apparently blocked by smoke and debris — detonated his vehicle just inside the barrier, destroying several nearby homes and blowing out windows in the hotel. Eight Iraqis were killed and at least 43 people were wounded, officials said.

“What we have here appears to be two suicide car bombs (that) attempted to breach the security wall in the vicinity of the hotel complex, and I think the target was the Hamra Hotel,” U.S. Brig. Gen. Karl Horst told reporters at the scene.

News organizations housed at the Hamra include NBC News and The Boston Globe.

NBC’s Mike Boettcher reported that guests at the Hamra were jolted out of their beds by the first blast. Recalling their training, they braced in anticipation of a second explosion, which happened shortly afterwards.

Media targeted before
The tactics in the Hamra attack were similar to those employed in the Oct. 24 triple vehicle assault on the Palestine Hotel, where employees of The Associated Press, Fox News and other organizations live and work. In that attack, which killed 17 Iraqis, one vehicle blew a hole in a concrete blast wall, opening the way for a cement truck packed with explosives to penetrate the compound.

The truck detonated only a few feet into the compound after U.S. troops raked the vehicle with automatic fire and the driver got stuck in debris. A third vehicle went off a short distance away.

Boettcher said on the “Today” show, “We were blown out of our beds.”

“We got down on the floor and crawled, and then the second bomb hit, and we were blown back,” Boettcher said. “To be in the middle of this — not a pleasant experience, but I feel a lot more sorry for those people who were killed just outside our compound, who didn’t have that blast wall to protect them. That saved our lives.”

Sa’ad al-Izzi, an Iraqi journalist with The Boston Globe, said he awakened “to a huge explosion which broke all the glass and displaced all the window and doors frames.”

Escalating tensions among Iraqis
The latest attacks in Khanaqin and Baghdad have brought to at least 1,617 the number of Iraqis killed in suicide attacks since the Shiite-led government took power April 28, according to an Associated Press count. At least 3,429 have been wounded.

The attack against the Shiite worshippers occurred amid rising tensions between Iraq’s majority Shiite and minority Sunni communities. Tensions escalated after last weekend’s discovery of 173 malnourished detainees — some bearing signs of torture — in an Interior Ministry building in Baghdad seized by American soldiers.

Most of the prisoners are believed to have been Sunni Arabs, and the discovery lent credence to allegations of abuse leveled against troops controlled by the Shiite-led Interior Ministry.

Interior Minister Bayn Jabr said the torture allegations were exaggerated, but the government has agreed to investigate lockups nationwide.

Sunni Arab politicians and clerics have demanded an international investigation and have said they would not accept findings of any probe in which the Iraqi government played a role.

Louise Arbour, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, endorsed calls for an international probe “in light of the apparently systemic nature and magnitude of that problem.”

“I urge authorities to consider calling for an international inquiry,” the former U.N. war crimes prosecutor said in Geneva.

Also Friday, U.S. and Iraqi troops killed 32 insurgents in fighting around Ramadi, capital of Anbar province 70 miles west of Baghdad, the U.S. military said. One Marine and an Iraqi soldier suffered minor injuries in the fighting, the statement said.

NBC's Mike Boettcher in Baghdad and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Nov. 2005: Bureau bombed

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