A spectacular triple bombing targeted a hotel complex used by American and other foreign news organizations in downtown Baghdad on Monday, killing at least 17 people and wounding dozens more in the biggest attack against Western civilians in Iraq in many months.
In a highly coordinated attack, three successive suicide bombers, one of them driving an explosives-packed cement mixer, hurled themselves at the fortified perimeter surrounding the heavily guarded Palestine Hotel, home to several American media outlets and the most high-profile symbol of the foreign presence in Baghdad outside the fortified Green Zone across the Tigris River.
The rapid-fire explosions, just minutes apart, illuminated the sky and drowned out the muezzin's call to prayer just as Iraqis were racing home to celebrate iftar, the meal that ends the day of fasting during the holy month of Ramadan.
Though foreigners appeared to be the targets, Iraqi officials said all the known casualties were Iraqi civilians and security guards caught up in the mayhem on Firdaus Square, the busy traffic circle outside the hotels where Saddam Hussein's statue was famously pulled down by U.S. Marines in 2003.
According to accounts provided by Iraq's Interior Ministry and the U.S. military, the first two attacks appeared aimed at breaching the fortified perimeter of the hotel compound to make way for the third, much larger blast, one that probably would have brought down the building if it had reached its target.
The first explosion knocked a hole in the concrete barrier blocking access to the hotels from the square, then, moments later, a second bomb exploded on the other side of the square, sending journalists and guests scurrying for cover in the corridors of the Palestine Hotel.
Dramatic video footage from the hotel's top floor then showed the cement mixer driving through the smashed concrete barrier. Under small-arms fire from several directions, the driver tried to breach a second barrier, before detonating his explosives just short of the hotels in a huge ball of orange flame that could be seen across the city.
According to the U.S. military, a U.S. soldier shot the driver of the cement truck.
"The soldier had a clear line of vision to the truck, and he engaged it," said spokesman Lt. Col. Robert Whetstone. "That's the reason the truck never made it to the hotel."
Though the target could have been either the Sheraton or the Palestine, which are opposite one another in the compound, the Sheraton has been almost empty since Western contractors who had been based there evacuated last year.
Iraq's national security adviser, Mouwafak al-Rubaie, told satellite news channels that the bombings were intended as the prelude to an attempt to storm the Palestine Hotel and take foreign hostages, but that could not be independently confirmed. Witnesses reported heavy gunfire during and immediately after the explosions, but no sign of an assault, and the U.S. military said there was no evidence that gunmen planned to storm the building.
It was the largest attack against foreign civilians in Baghdad in recent memory, and refocused attention on an insurgency that had seemed to lose some steam in the days leading up to the Oct. 15 referendum on a new constitution.
Suicide bombers are believed to have driven vehicles into barriers outside the Palestine and Sheraton hotels where the attacks were caught on camera.
A BBC correspondent says the bombers appear to have chosen the hotels to ensure maximum publicity.
The blasts come amid speculation the poll on the constitution may fail.
One source told AFP news agency the dead were mainly security guards, hotel employees and passers-by. At least nine people were injured, reports BBC news.