18 killed in Iraq blast

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At least 18 people were killed when a car bomb exploded today outside the main gate to the headquarters of the US-led coalition. A further 28 people were injured.

The blast, apparently caused by a suicide driver, occurred at about 8am near the "Assassin's Gate" to Saddam Hussein's former Republican Palace complex, now used by the US-led occupation authority for headquarters.

The gate is used by hundreds of Iraqis employed by the Coalition Provisional Authority, the formal name of the US-led occupation authorities, as well as US military vehicles.

The US military press office said the 18 dead included 16 Iraqi civilians and two American civilians. The 28 injured included 22 Iraqi civilians, four American civilians and two US soldiers, the press office said.

Brig. Gen. Mark Hertling, deputy commander of the 1st Armoured Division, said the blast was caused by a car bomb, and American officials were "assuming this was a suicide bomb."

Witnesses said the blast occurred as one, possibly two, Land Cruisers approached the heavily guarded gate.

"It was literally at the last point a vehicle could get to without being stopped," Hertling said. "The barriers absorbed most of the blast."

Police Gen. Hassan al-Obeidi said the blast was caused by a lone suicide driver. A witness, Salah Farhan, said he was accompanying colleagues through the checkpoint when he saw a Land Cruiser try to jump to the head of the line. It exploded about two cars back from the gate, he said.

US troops guarding the gate took cover when they saw the vehicle try to move to the front of the line.

The area is one of the most heavily guarded in the capital. US soldiers guarding the gate usually stand about 20 yards from the road behind coils of barbed wire and concrete barriers. Iraqi witnesses said one, possibly two, Land Cruisers attempted to enter the gate when they exploded.

One witness, Hamid Hawwam, said two cars exploded at the gate, and one of them flew into the air.

Karar Abbas, an Iraqi civil defence trooper, said the blast engulfed seven cars parked along the street.

Mohammed Jabbar, who works at the Ministry of Planning, said he was waiting to pass through the security checkpoint when the blast occurred.

"When the explosion went off, it was very strong," he said. "It lifted us into the air. People fell on top of one another."

At least three separate fires were seen after the blast. One man was seen lying motionless on the side of the road as coalition soldiers and civilians helped the wounded.

Coalition tanks also moved in near the blazes.

"The wounded are in big numbers, there are killed, there were people whom we couldn't take to the hospital," engineer Khalid Taleb said. "It is a very crowded area."

The explosion could be heard along the banks of the Tigris River, which flows through the centre of the city of five million. Dense morning fog blanketed the city at the time.