The explosion, which occurred around 4:30 p.m. local time, appeared to be the work of a suicide bomber, Bernard Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner who is helping rebuild the Iraqi police force, said at a news conference.
Asked by a reporter if the terrorist group al-Qaida was responsible for the attack, Kerik replied, “It’s much too early to say that. We don’t have that kind of evidence yet.”
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Tuesday’s blast, and U.S. officials have held back from naming any specific group, or individuals, for the attack.
Witnesses reported seeing a large vehicle, described by one person as a cement mixer, being driven at high speed. The truck reportedly slammed into the high walls surrounding the Canal Hotel, which serves as the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, and exploded, blowing a huge crater into the wall.
Military ambulances, security forces and dozens of U.S. Humvees arrived at the scene while at least two Black Hawk helicopters hovered above. Black smoke rose hundreds of feet into the air, officials reported.
The force of the explosion blew out windows up to a mile away from the hotel and destroyed several cars, setting at least one on fire.
The bomb was detonated just below the office of the United Nation’s top man in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello. Salim Lone, the U.N. spokesman in Baghdad, told the BBC that the blast took place “right below” his window.
“I guess it was targeted for that. His office and the offices around him no longer exist – it is all rubble,” said Lone. He called the explosion “an unspeakable crime against people from all over the world who have come here to help the people of Iraq.”
Vieira de Mello, the 55-year-old U.N. envoy in Iraq who was just days away from completing his four-month mission, was in his office when the explosion ripped through the building, trapping him and other U.N. staffers in the rubble.
U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard in New York later announced that Vieira de Mello had died. Eckhard honored the diplomat as a “fast-rising star of the secretariat” who “distinguished himself as an active, capable doer.”
At the U.N. headquarters in New York, all the national flags were removed from their poles; the United Nation’s blue and white flag was lowered to half-staff.
In Baghdad, L. Paul Bremer, the top U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, referred to “my dear friend, Sergio,” and added, “It may well be that he was the target of this attack.”
“The truck was parked in such a place here in front of the building that it had to affect his office,” Bremer said, speaking at a press conference before the announcement of Vieira de Mello’s death.
Bremer arrived at the wrecked hotel grounds to survey the destruction, accompanied by senior U.S. military officials and members of the Iraqi Governing Council.
“We will leave no stone unturned to find the perpetrators of this attack,” Bremer said, while rescue workers continued to pull people out of the wreckage.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan denounced the attack on the U.N. headquarters as an inexcusable “act of unprovoked and murderous violence” and mourned the death of Vieira de Mello as “a bitter blow for the United Nations and for me personally.”
“Those who killed him have committed a crime, not only against the United Nations but against Iraq itself,” Annan said. “Nothing can excuse this act of unprovoked and murderous violence against men and women who went to Iraq for one purpose only: to help the Iraqi people recover their independence and sovereignty, and to rebuild their country as fast as possible, under leaders of their own choosing.”
The attack on the U.N. compound sparked questions about the security conditions of the international organization’s offices and staff working in Iraq.
Eckhard said at a press conference that the security of the U.N. compound was the primary responsibility of the coalition forces.
“[I]n the case of Iraq, we would depend on the coalition for security. So there’s not a matter of our having our own security officers taking responsibility for our people or sending security officers in, that’s the job of the coalition,” a visibly upset Eckhard told reporters.
Eckhard called the attack “a tragedy, I think, not only personally but also a setback politically for the U.N. mission.”
President Bush, speaking from his ranch in Crawford, Texas, also condemned the bombing, but vowed the attack would not derail U.S. efforts to rebuild Iraq.
“These killers will not determine the future of Iraq,” Mr. Bush said. “Every sign of progress in Iraq adds to the desperation of the terrorists and the remnants of Saddam’s brutal regime.
“By attempting to spread chaos and fear, terrorists are testing our will. Across the world, they are finding that our will cannot be shaken. …We will continue this war on terror until the killers are brought to justice,” the president said.
There are some 300 U.N. personnel based in Baghdad and 646 in Iraq altogether.
The three-floor building served as the main offices for most U.N. agencies — except UNICEF and the Food and Agriculture Organization — operating in Iraq. Before the war, the hotel housed U.N. weapons inspectors who stored hundreds of documents there and a mobile testing lab in the hotel parking lot.