Image: Iraqi man and child; Baghdad hotel destroyed in bombing.
Murad Sezer  /  AP
An Iraqi man holding his child walks Thursday past the site of an explosion that tore apart a five-story in Baghdad.
msnbc.com news services
updated 3/18/2004 10:30:54 AM ET 2004-03-18T15:30:54

U.S. soldiers and Iraqi rescuers stopped searching for survivors Thursday in the wreckage of a five-story hotel and surrounding buildings after a massive suicide bombing.

There were varying reports on the death toll from the blast.

The U.S. military had said 27 people died, but later revised the toll downward to 7. However, Governing Council official Rowsch Shawayas said earlier that Iraqi authorities put the toll at “about 20.”

At least 30 people were wounded in the car bomb attack on the Mount Lebanon Hotel in the heart of Baghdad. One Briton was killed and another was injured, the British government said.

U.S. Army Col. Jill Morgenthaler confirmed the attack was a suicide bombing, but said the destroyed Mount Lebanon Hotel may not have been the intended target because the vehicle loaded with explosives was in the middle of the street, and not parked in front of the hotel.

Video: Baghdad explosion caught on tape She said it was not clear what the target may have been. The hotel is in the middle of a busy district that is both commercial and residential.

Morgenthaler said 17 people were killed, but gave no explanation for why the death toll was revised downward.

Al-Qaida suspected in blast
The spokesman for the Iraqi Governing Council blamed al-Qaida for the blast, but offered no evidence to support the accusation.

"It is aimed at terrorizing the civilians, destabilizing the country and hampering the democratic march in the country," Hamid al-Kafaai said.

A U.S. counterterrorism official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said al-Qaida-linked Jordanian Islamic militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is among those suspected of playing a key role.

Rescuers pulled two more bodies from the rubble before dawn Thursday and smoke was still pouring from the site 12 hours after the explosion, which torched nearby homes, offices, cars and shops.

Slideshow: Baghdad blast The nationalities of all the dead were not immediately known, though the majority are expected to be Iraqi.

A Moroccan, three Jordanians, two Britons, two Lebanese and an Egyptian were registered as having rooms in the Lebanese-owned hotel on the night of the blast, said hotel duty manager Bashir Abdel-Hadi, who left the building 10 minutes before the explosion.

He said among those killed were the hotel's three security guards, who were standing in front of it at the time.

Damage to surrounding buildings
Much of the damage from the blast was done to buildings surrounding the hotel. Across the street, the one-story house of a Christian family of seven was virtually destroyed. AP reporters saw four bodies pulled from the wreckage.

"I was sleeping in the room and then I heard a huge explosion, I ran out and then I was hit against the wall," said Jihad Abu Muslah while lying in Al Kindi Hospital with bandages over his face.

Sixteen-year-old Walid Mohammed Abdel-Maguid, who lives near the hotel, said, "It was a huge boom followed by complete darkness and then the red glow of a fire."

A U.S. soldier less than half a mile away said the blast felt as though it were next door.

Immediately after the explosion, dazed and wounded people stumbled from the wreckage, marked by a jagged, 20-foot crater. A father cradled his young daughter, who was limp in his arms. Coated in dust, some rescuers dug through the debris with bare hands as uniformed firefighters fought the blaze and ambulance workers stood by with orange stretchers.

U.S.-funded Arabic Al-Hurra television station captured the blast on video. As a massive fire ball explodes into the night sky about a half a mile away and a second later a thunderous boom is heard, an Iraqi woman in a Muslim shawl who was about to be interviewed ducks for cover.

Same mix of explosives used in U.N. attack
U.S. Army Col. Ralph Baker of the 1st Armored Division estimated that the bomb contained 1,000 pounds of explosives.

He said the bomb was a mix of plastic explosives and artillery shells. That was the same mixture of explosives used in the Aug. 19 suicide attack on the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, which killed 22 people.

The Mount Lebanon was a so-called soft target because it did not have concrete blast barriers and other security measures that protect offices of the U.S.-led coalition and buildings where Westerners live and work.

The attack came just days before the first anniversary of the start of the U.S.-led war to topple Saddam Hussein. It took place behind Firdaus Square, where Iraqis toppled a bronze statue of Saddam on April 9 with the help of U.S. Marines who had just entered the center of the capital.

Brig. Gen. Mark Hertling, deputy commander of the U.S. Army's 1st Armored Division said he did not believe Iraqis linked to former ruling Baath party were behind the attack, saying that they are believed to be focusing attacks on U.S. soldiers.

Referring to a possible role in the attack by al-Zarqawi, the counterterrorism official said that while there were other possibilities, the Jordanian has had a role in a number of large attacks.

However, "it's not his style to claim responsibility for attacks. At this point, it is not clear who is responsible," the official added.

Meanwhile, mortars fired at two U.S. bases in Iraq on Wednesday killed three American soldiers and wounded nine others, the military said Thursday.

Action against insurgents
The attack came at the end of a day in which thousands of U.S. and Iraqi troops fanned out through the capital in a major operation aimed at weeding out insurgents blamed for recent attacks on civilian aid workers and seizing illegal weapons.

In one sweep, troops, helicopters and armored vehicles raided a suspected arms market in the capital, capturing rocket-propelled grenade launchers, bags of grenades and arresting at least three suspects.

The operation that began Wednesday was called “Iron Promise” and was expected to involve thousands of U.S. troops from the Fort Hood, Texas-based 1st Cavalry Division, which has recently arrived in Iraq, and the outgoing Germany-based 1st Armored Division. Hundreds of Iraqi Civil Defense Corps soldiers were also involved.

The campaign comes during a week in which gunmen, in two separate attacks, killed two Europeans and four American missionaries working on water projects. The six killings suggest the insurgents are going after civilians to undermine reconstruction efforts.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Aftermath

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