Deadly Blast in Iraq
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RAY SUAREZ: Jeffrey Gettleman, welcome. I understand you got to the scene quickly after the bomb. Tell us what you saw.
JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Well, I actually saw the explosion happen. I was standing in our bureau about a quarter of a mile away when the explosion went off, and there was this bright blue flash, a tremendous thud. A bunch of us rushed out of our bureau to the scene. And when we got there, it was complete pandemonium.
All the lights in the neighborhood had been knocked out. There was fire everywhere. One apartment building had been completely destroyed. A hotel across the street was in flames. There were hundreds of people in the streets trying to sort of dig through rubble, carry out bodies, help the injured. And then a bunch of American soldiers showed up trying to clear the masses of people. A lot of people didn’t want to go.
The soldiers had to point their guns in the faces of the Iraqi people, ask them to leave. There were serious communication problems. And, meanwhile, they kept pulling out body after body from this apartment building and from the hotel.
RAY SUAREZ: Did American forces eventually get control of the scene, and were Iraqi security forces much in evidence?
JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Yeah, it was a mix of Iraqi police … it looked like the Iraqi army, and the American army. But when we first arrived there, it was mostly the Iraqi police and they really didn’t have control of the scene. Some officers were whipping people back. Some officers were helping remove bodies. I saw them drop a stretcher with a woman on it. And then when the American soldiers arrived, it was really tense.
And they were trying to push the crowds back, but a lot of people were yelling at them, saying, “hey,” you know, “why are you doing this? We’re here to help remove some of the bodies. We’re here to help transport the injured to ambulances. Let us through.” And there was, like I said, serious communication problems, where the American soldiers were yelling instructions in English, and it was pretty clear that the Iraqis didn’t understand anything.
RAY SUAREZ: Was this bomb attack carried out at a time of day when there would have been a lot of people on the street, or would most people have been in some sort of shelter?
JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: I think probably somewhere in between. I mean, Baghdad, believe it or not, actually has some nightlife. A lot of stores and restaurants are open till 9 or 10 p.m. So there is some life on the streets when this attack happened. It wasn’t clear how many people who were hurt or who were killed were in the street. Right now, the death toll that we have is around 25 people killed. The authorities are saying around 40 injured. But that’s likely to rise as the night goes on.
RAY SUAREZ: What kind of place is this Karada neighborhood? Is it heavily commercial, residential?
JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: It’s actually one of the nicer neighborhoods in Baghdad. It’s a mix of apartment buildings, homes and businesses. A lot of the nicer hotels are just, you know, a half mile or a quarter mile away. There’s a lot of foreigners in this area. The hotel that is thought to be the target of this bombing — because it’s not quite clear if they were targeting a hotel or there is a new Iraqi cell phone company next door — but the hotel that was damaged by the bombing was, you know, mostly like a middle-tier hotel with some foreigners staying there and a mix of local businesspeople and foreign businesspeople.
RAY SUAREZ: So it doesn’t sound like the kind of hotel that would have gotten the security cordon, the concertina wire, the concrete barriers.
JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: That’s exactly right. I mean, it was really vulnerable. There was no barriers, no wires, no checkpoints. And unlike some of the bigger hotel in town that are fortresses at this point, this place was wide open. And the thought is that a lot of these people planning the attacks are sort of constantly scouting out new locations and are looking for sort of the weakest points in the city. And from what we could tell, this hotel was one of them.
RAY SUAREZ: From the pictures that have reached United States, from your description, it sounds like this would have been a pretty sizable bomb, one that needed a vehicle to carry it in.
JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Yeah, there’s still a little bit of a mystery of what caused the explosion. Some people at the scene, a lot of people at the scene, were telling us it was a missile, but that’s often a conspiracy theory that you hear in the aftermath of an explosion. The American authorities said they thought it was a car bomb based on this enormous crater that was left right in front of the hotel.
I mean, it was really stunning because I’ve been to a few of these car bombings, and this is the biggest crater I’ve seen. It was about 10 feet deep, maybe 10 or 15 feet across. I mean, just this huge hole in the asphalt. And all around it were the charred remains of other cars. And like I said, it completely destroyed this building across the street and ripped off the facade of a hotel, so, whatever it was, it was a big bomb, and right now the leading theory is it was a car bomb.
RAY SUAREZ: Has there been any claim of responsibility?
JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: No, there hasn’t. And a lot of these attacks, there really isn’t. I mean, the two sort of usual suspects that are often blamed is the Jordanian terrorist al-Zarqawi, who is connected to al-Qaida and is, you know, frequently mentioned as being behind the insurgency. There was a letter found linking him to a number of suicide bombings a couple months ago. And then the other suspect is Ansar al-Islam, which was a Kurdish group based in northern Iraq that originally was just attacking Kurdish targets, but the thought is, is that they have sort of expanded their mission and are now trying to bring down stability here in Iraq all over.
RAY SUAREZ: Jeffrey Gettleman in Baghdad, thanks for being with us.
JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Thank you.