U.N. Base In Baghdad Bombed

The United Nations headquarters at the Canal Hotel, showing damage after the bomb attack, Aug. 19, 2003.
AP
A suicide attacker set off a truck bomb on Tuesday outside the hotel that serves as U.N. headquarters in Baghdad. At least 20 U.N. workers and Iraqis were killed, including the chief U.N. official in Iraq, and 100 were wounded.

Sergio Vieira de Mello, a 55-year-old veteran Brazilian diplomat who was nearing the end of his four-month mission as the U.N.'s top man in Iraq, was wounded and trapped in the rubble at the Canal Hotel, where the U.N was based. Hours later, the U.N. announced his death.

According to witnesses, a cement truck exploded at a concrete wall outside the hotel at around 4:30 p.m. The blast left a six-foot-deep crater in the ground, shredded the hotel's facade and stunned an organization that had been welcomed by many Iraqis in contrast to the U.S.-led occupation forces.

While the hotel was well guarded, the building next door, a hospital, was vulnerable, reports CBS News Correspondent Randall Pinskton. Someone managed to maneuver the truck bomb into a driveway, next to the U.N. headquarters.

The blast occurred during a U.N. press conference, ironically, on clearing leftover land mines to make Iraq a safer place. The scene was captured by CBS News cameraman Atheer Hameed, who kept filming despite the mayhem.

The video shows images of chaos and unimaginable horror. Everywhere, torn bodies and blood-soaked survivors with makeshift bandages; the stunned and wounded stumbling through the door, stepping over those unable to move.

Outside, they hold onto each other, shocked that the war had come to the United Nations. Medivac helicopters can be seen in the air, ambulances on the ground and an intense effort to find survivors in the rubble.

President Bush, at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, condemned the bombing, calling the attackers "enemies of the civilized world."

"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."

The U.N. Security Council, which was briefed about the bombing at a closed-door meeting, called the blast a "terrorist attack."

"Those who killed him have committed a crime, not only against the United Nations but against Iraq itself," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a statement, calling Vieira de Mello "an outstanding servant of humanity."

It's still too early to pinpoint responsibility for the blast, reports CBS News Correspondent David Martin, but U.S. officials say there are three groups working to undo the American occupation and reconstruction of Iraq:

  • Remnants of Saddam's regime, including Ba'ath Party officials, intelligence officers and Fedayeen fighters. These so-called dead-enders would have detailed knowledge of the layout of the building that was hit Tuesday since it once housed the U.S. weapons inspectors, who were kept under constant surveillance by Saddam's regime.
  • Foreign fighters slipping back into Iraq to carry on their holy war against so-called infidels occupying Arab lands. Just Monday, another audiotape surfaced supposedly from an al Qaeda spokesman urging resistance in Iraq.
  • A terrorist group known as Ansar al Islam, which is a leading suspect in the recent car bombing of the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad. Jordan is one of the Arab countries that allowed its bases to be used for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Ansar al Islam once had a base in Iraq; it was destroyed during the war, but many of its members got away.

    A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said in Baghdad that the truck did not breach the security wall that was erected around the hotel within the past month. He said it was parked on an access road just outside the compound. Witnesses said it was uncertain if the truck was parked or trying to break through the barrier.

    The official estimated the amount of explosives was double that used in the attack on the Jordanian embassy almost two weeks ago in which 19 people were killed.

    The embassy attack was thought to be the first such terrorist-style bombing in the Iraqi capital since Saddam Hussein's fall.

    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 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."

    "We will leave no stone unturned to find the perpetrators of this attack," he said.

    Among the dead were a Canadian and a Dane. 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.

    The Iraq posting capped Vieira de Mello's 30-year career as a U.N. troubleshooter in the world's most dangerous places, from Kosovo to Cyprus to East Timor. After being named to the Iraq post in June, the Brazilian diplomat said his top priority was to protect the interests of the Iraqi people under the U.S.-led occupation.

    Deputy Syrian ambassador Fayssal Mekdad, whose country holds the Security Council presidency, said "such terrorist incidents cannot break the will of the international community" and that U.N. programs would continue.

    In other developments in Iraq:

  • Taha Yassin Ramadan, a former Iraqi vice president known as "Saddam's knuckles" for his ruthlessness, was captured by Kurdish fighters in the northern city of Mosul and turned over to U.S. forces. He was No. 20 on the U.S. most-wanted list of former regime figures.
  • The U.S. civilian administrator of Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, said Syria 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.
  • Two U.S. soldiers were wounded when their patrol was fired on with rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire in the town of Balad, the army said.
  • A group of 238 soldiers from the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras headed for Kuwait to join a Polish-led peacekeeping force that will operate in south-central Iraq. A group of 14 troops from Kazakhstan also left for Iraq to join the Polish-led force. Another 13 are scheduled to leave Wednesday. Jordan ruled out sending peacekeepers to Iraq under the umbrella of U.S. occupation forces.