Explosion rocks U.N. headquarters in Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) — A suicide truck bomb ripped through the hotel housing the U.N. headquarters on Tuesday, U.S. officials said. At least 15 people were killed and 40 wounded, including the chief U.N. official in Iraq, who was trapped in the rubble, U.N. officials said.
A U.N. worker in Baghdad, Tharer al-Tikriti, said that he had counted 15 white body bags taken from the collapsed building, where about 300 people worked. A U.N. spokesman in New York said the official count was 14.
‘‘There were foreigners and Iraqis inside (the body bags,)’’ al-Tikriti said.
An Associated Press reporter counted 40 wounded people lying in the front garden and receiving first aid. Some were loaded into a helicopter while others were led away by soldiers.
‘‘I can’t move. I can’t feel my legs and arms. Dozens of people I know are still under the ruins,’’ Majid Al-Hamaidi, 43, a driver for the World Bank, cried out.
Bernard Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner who is rebuilding the Iraqi police force, told reporters that evidence suggested the attack was a suicide bombing.
‘‘There was an enormous amount of explosives in what we believed to be a large truck,’’ Kerik added.
Asked if al-Qaida was behind the attack, Kerik said, ‘‘It’s much too early to say that. We don’t have that kind of evidence yet.’’
Some reports said the truck carrying the explosives drove into the lobby of the Canal Hotel, where the U.N. was based, before exploding, a senior defense official at the Pentagon said on condition of anonymity.
The top U.N. envoy to Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, was wounded and among those trapped in the rubble, which destroyed his office.
‘‘They were offering him water so it sounded like he was conscious,’’ U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said in New York.
Eckhard said he didn’t know how seriously Vieira de Mello, a 55-year-old Brazilian, was hurt. A senior UNICEF official also was seriously wounded in the blast, U.N. officials said.
Vieira de Mello began a four-month assignment in Baghdad in June and had said his mission was ‘‘to make sure that the interests of the Iraqi people come first’’ in rebuilding their country.
Eckhard said the United Nations depended on the U.S.-led coalition for security of the building.
The blast came 12 days after a car bomb attack on the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad killed 11 people. It was thought to be the first such terrorist-style bombing in the Iraqi capital since Saddam Hussein’s fall.
President Bush, at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, ordered all possible assistance to rescue and recovery efforts in Baghdad.
‘‘The terrorists who struck today have again shown their contempt for the innocent. They showed their fear of progress and their hatred of peace,’’ Bush said.
Like the Jordan bombing, the attack — a vehicle bomb, a high-profile target with many civilians inside — resembled attacks blamed on Islamic militant elsewhere in the world. It was far more sophisticated than the campaign of guerrilla attacks that has plagued U.S. forces, featuring hit-and-run shootings carried out by small bands or remote control roadside bombs.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Tuesday’s blast.
Dia’a Rashwan, an expert on radical Islam at Egypt’s Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said the attack fits ‘‘the ideology of al-Qaida. They consider the U.N. one of the international actors who helped the Americans to occupy Palestine and, later, Iraq.’’
The blast occurred about 4:30 p.m., hours after the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq announced that Taha Yassin Ramadan, a former Iraqi vice president known as ‘‘Saddam’s knuckles’’ for his ruthlessness, was turned over to U.S. forces in the northern city of Mosul.
A light blue U.N. flag fluttered atop the compound as black smoke rose from at least one burning car after the explosion. One corner of the building was missing and people were seen sifting through piles of rubble.
L. Paul Bremer, the top U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, walked through the scene of destruction as workers dug through the rubble with their hands trying to find people. There was a 15-yard wide hole in the ground.
Bremer arrived with Lt. Gen. Richardo Sanchez, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, and members of the Governing Council, including Adnan Pachachi who had served as foreign minister in the Iraqi government that was overthrown in the 1968 Baath Party coup.
Bremer had tears in his eyes and hugged Hassan al-Salame, an adviser to Vieira de Mello. A part of the building collapsed near him. People cried: ‘‘Watch out. Watch Out.’’
People, covered with blood, were still being pulled from the wreckage.
The mood was panicky at U.N. headquarters in New York. Officials and employees gathered around television sets hoping for news on colleagues in Baghdad.
The U.N. Security Council called the blast a ‘‘terrorist attack.’’
‘‘Members of the council were shocked to hear of the terrorist criminal attack in the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad,’’ said deputy Syrian ambassador Faysal Mekdad, speaking on behalf of the council. The top U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, also said early reports indicated a terrorist attack.
The U.N. Security Council was briefed about the bombing at a closed-door meeting. U.S. diplomats were pushing for the council to adopt a statement condemning the bombing.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry called the explosion a ‘‘barbaric act’’ and said it was ‘‘aimed at undermining the already difficult process of postwar stabilization in Iraq,’’ the Interfax news agency reported.
Among the dead was a Canadian who died at Wasiti Hospital, Dr. Safa Jamil said. The Canadian was not identified.
One wounded man had a yard-long, inch-thick aluminum rod driven into his face just below his right eye. He identified himself as a security consultant for the International Monetary Fund, saying he had just arrived in the country over the weekend.
Dozens of U.S. Humvees were at the scene and at least two Black Hawk helicopters hovered above.
Mekdad said ‘‘such terrorist incidents cannot break the will of the international community’’ and that U.N. programs would continue.
The United Nations distributes humanitarian aid and is developing programs aimed at boosting Iraq’s emerging free press, justice system and monitoring of human rights. United Nations weapons inspectors worked out of the hotel during the period before the war.
The Canal Hotel operates more as an office building than a hotel. The cafeteria is a popular place for humanitarian workers and journalists to meet. U.S. officials often were at the compound as well for discussions with their U.N. counterparts.
The three-floor building houses the offices of most U.N. agencies with the exception of UNICEF and the Food and Agriculture Organization. Before the war, it was home to U.N. weapons inspectors who have hundreds of documents there and a mobile testing lab in the hotel parking lot.
The attack on the U.N. headquarters followed the bombing of the Jordanian embassy and recent suspected sabotage of Iraq’s main northern oil export pipeline into Turkey, where a fire still raged.
Accounts varied over whether the blaze was accidental or an act of sabotage. It would take at least 10 days to repair the damaged pipeline once the fire is extinguished, U.S. military officials said.
Most people in Baghdad had water service Tuesday after saboteurs blew an enormous hole in a 5-foot-diameter water main in the north of the city.
Ramadan, 65, was captured Tuesday by Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq and the Arab satellite television station Al-Jazeera said he was disguised in peasant clothes. The former vice president was once considered Iraq’s second-most powerful man, but his influence had declined. He was No. 20 on the U.S. most-wanted list of former regime figures.
Bremer said in remarks published Tuesday that Syria, which opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, was allowing ‘‘foreign terrorists’’ to sneak across the border into Iraq.
‘‘We held talks with the Syrians in this regard, we hope to see better cooperation,’’ Bremer told the London-based Arabic newspaper Al Hayat.
The U.S. military on Tuesday also reported another attack on U.S. forces. Assailants driving alongside an ambulance for cover fired on soldiers in one of Saddam’s palaces on Monday night, a military official said. No soldiers were injured.