In a daring attack anti-American guerrillas yesterday fired a barrage of rockets at the al-Rashid hotel, a symbol of the US occupation, in the heart of Baghad, killing one US soldier and wounding 15 other people, mostly Americans.
The rockets, fired from a home made launcher hidden in a blue trailer, smashed into the al-Rashid at 6.10 am as Paul Wolfowitz, the US Deputy Defence Secretary was dressing for a breakfast meeting. In the minutes after the attack American officials fled in their pajamas and underpants to the convention centre opposite the hotel said eyewitnesses.
Between six and eight rockets struck the hotel between the seventh and eleventh floors, blowing holes in its grey concrete exterior and smashing windows. Guests were thrown from their beds by the blasts and in one corridor survivors had to wade through deep water from a burst pipe.
A shaken looking Mr Wolfowitz, one of the architects of the invasion of Iraq, claimed to reporters soon after the rockets had hit to claim that "these terrorist attacks will not deter us from completing our mission, which is to help the Iraqi people free themselves from the types of criminals who did this." But the skilled and carefully timed assault on the al-Rasheed, whose grey concrete structure rises over central Baghdad, will undermine Mr Wolfowitz's increasingly shrill claim that the US is making progress in Iraq in defeating the resistance. Just after he left the US garrison in Tikrit, the home city of Saddam Hussein, on Saturday guerrillas shot down a US army Black Hawk helicopter with a rocket propelled grenade.
The attack on the al-Rasheed, heavily protected at ground level by US soldiers manning fortified barriers topped with razor wire, was expertly organised. Guerrillas constructed a launcher disguised as an electric generator in a trailer, possibly taking six weeks to build it according to US defence officials. It contained 20 rockets each about three feet long.
At about 6 am yesterday morning a Chevrolet pick-up towed the two-wheeled blue coloured trailer to a side street some 800 yards from the hotel close to the Zara Park and the Zoo. The driver was noticed by unarmed security guards. They were not unduly alarmed because generators are a common sight in Baghdad because of the frequent electricity blackouts.
"We approached him to tell him to move the car. When he saw us he fled," said one of the guards, Jabbar Tarek, later in hospital. Almost immediately the rockets, presumably controlled by a timer, began to streak towards the hotel, the ignition wounding the guards. A US military spokesman claimed that two other guards had opened fire on several men leaving the trailer and wounded two of them though this was contradicted by some witnesses. Some eleven of the rockets failed to leave their canisters and several others did not explode on impact.
"There was a wooshing sound," said Dafer Jawad, another security guard stationed at the Convention Centre. "One landed in front of the hotel. I saw very heavy white smoke in front of the hotel." Mr Wolfowitz is said by eyewitnesses to have escaped, as fire alarms blared, down a stair case through the smoke. He shortly afterwards told reporters that "there are a few who refuse to accept the reality of a new and free Iraq. We will be unrelenting in our pursuit of them." If Mr Wolfowitz had spoken to Iraqis living close to the scene of the attack he might have revised his opinion about the popularity of the US-led occupation. Standing on the flat roof of his house looking at the battered western face of the al-Rashid Ibrahim Abdul Sattar, an articulate eleven-year-old, said: "The situation is worse than under Saddam. We want the Americans to leave." In the street below a young man, who did not want to give his name, said: "Nobody in Iraq can accept the occupation, absolutely nobody."
Others were more forthright. Ali Hussein, a grocer in central Baghdad, told Reuters news agency: "I wish Wolfowitz had been killed. I wish all Americans here would be killed. The Americans are not human beings, they are monsters. They lied to the Iraqi people." Hostility towards the occupation has increased sharply over the last few months in both Sunni and Shiite Muslim districts. An opinion poll carried out by Iraq's Centre for Research and Strategic Studies, a think tank set up by Iraqi professors after the fall of Baghdad, shows that only 15 per cent of Iraqis see the invading coalition as 'liberating forces'. This compares to 43 per cent who broadly welcomed the coalition six months ago in a poll by the same organisation.
The number of Iraqis who see the US-led coalition as 'occupying powers' has risen from 46 per cent to 67 per cent over the same period. One wealthy Shiite businessman said: "It used to be the Sunni who opposed the occupation but now I notice that my Shiite friends are also becoming hostile to it." This is a significant development since Shiites are at least 55 per cent of the population. The only Iraqi community which still supports the invasion is the Kurds.
The rejection of the occupation by most Iraqis has not yet turned to armed resistance except in Sunni districts north and west of Baghdad. But guerrillas are likely to find an increasingly sympathetic environment in which to make attacks. The battering by rockets of the al-Rashid, the most visible sign of the US presence in Iraq, may also increase a feeling among Iraqis who do work with the coalition that they are not necessarily betting on a winner.
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