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Wednesday, March 17

Car bomb rips through Baghdad hotel, killing dozens

By Kevin Johnson | USA TODAY

BAGHDAD - A powerful car bomb exploded outside a downtown hotel Wednesday night, killing at least 27 people and injuring 40. The explosion collapsed part of the multistory building and threw bodies onto the street.

The bombing came two days before the first anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Coalition officials have warned in recent weeks that insurgents may step up attacks to mark the anniversary or to disrupt the planned transfer of sovereignty by July 1.

The attack on the Jabal Lebanon Hotel, which occurred about 8 p.m. local time, threw downtown Baghdad into chaos. Military officials estimated the car was packed with 1,000 pounds of explosives.

The small hotel was next to the Palestine Hotel, home to much of the Western media in Iraq. The proximity to so many journalists ensured the blast received saturation television coverage.

U.S. soldiers rushed to the scene with tanks and armored vehicles. They cordoned off the narrow streets around the hotel as smoke poured from the heavily damaged structure.

``I just want to know whether my brother is alive or dead,'' a man screamed to soldiers who pushed him back. The man, who refused to be identified, said his brother worked as a security guard at the hotel.

Jean Michel, 44, an aid worker in Baghdad, said he heard the blast from a nearby coffee shop and rushed to the scene. There, he found a man trapped in the rubble and family members pleading for help. ``I think he was dead,'' Michel said.

Sherwann Ali, a local surgeon, pleaded with Iraqi police and U.S. soldiers to allow him access to the collapsed building. ``Iraqi people would not do this to their own,'' the surgeon said. ``This is a terrorist attack.''The blast threw large pieces of debris several blocks away from the flash point. In one alley adjacent to the hotel, cars charred in the blast were thrown into the street and water poured from what appeared to be broken pipelines.

A block away at the Swan Lake hotel, plate glass windows were blown out of their frames and lobby chairs tossed on their sides.

Broken glass littered the lobby where owner Haydar Al-shakarchi said it was ``amazing'' no one was hurt. ``Right after it I heard people shooting. I didn't know where the shots came from so I fell to the ground to cover myself,'' he said. ``I don't feel like they were targeting me. I was just in the wrong place.''

Soon after the blast the streets around the building were so densely packed with residents, onlookers and reporters that emergency vehicles were briefly blocked. U.S. soldiers cut through the crowd with weapons draw, yelling for order. The brusque soldiers' tactics angered some in the crowd, who began shouting anti-American slogans.

At one point soldiers attempted to restrain a man holding a young boy in his arms who was trying to get back to his home near the damaged hotel. ``I just came here to see my family,'' the man said. ``I have to get inside.''

Insurgents have shifted their tactics in recent weeks. Attacks against coalition troops have decreased but attacks on civilian targets have gone up. Guerrillas have targeted police and civilians cooperating with the coalition in the hopes of intimidating supporters of the U.S.-led coalition.The White House said the strategy won't work. ``Democracy is taking root in Iraq and there is no turning back,'' said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. ``We will continue to stay to finish the job for the Iraqi people.''

The attack came only hours after hundreds of U.S. and Iraqi soldiers completed a sweep through Baghdad to seize of weapons and capture insurgents.U.S. military officials said the raids netted large stores of weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades, and resulted in the detention of an undisclosed number of suspects.