Baghdad, Iraq Suicide bombers, including one in a cement truck packed with explosives, launched a dramatic attack Monday against the Palestine Hotel, where many foreign journalists are based, sending up a giant cloud of smoke and debris over central Baghdad. American troops and journalists escaped without serious injury but at least a half-dozen passers-by were killed.
The deafening attack triggered confusion and panic throughout the hotel, and sent cars swerving wildly on a roundabout to escape the blasts. Inside the 19-story hotel, the force of the blasts shattered glass, tore pictures off walls and brought down light fixtures and ceilings.
The cement truck was the last of three vehicles trying to break through the wall outside the hotel. The first car drove up to the wall and exploded, blasting out a section of the concrete. According to the U.S. military, the second car was headed for the fresh breach in the wall but exploded near the 14th Ramadan Mosque when it was engaged by civilian security forces.
Within minutes, the truck made it through the breach but apparently became stuck on a road between the Palestine and the neighboring Sheraton hotel. The truck rocked back and forth and then blew up after a U.S. soldier opened fire on it. Had the truck traveled 20 or 30 yards farther and blown up at the hotel entrance, it could have killed many people inside the Palestine.
The attack happened at dusk just as Iraqis would have been breaking the daylong fast they observe during the holy month of Ramadan and eating their first meal, called Iftar. It could have been an effort to catch Iraqi security forces at a vulnerable moment when they might have been less attentive.
Iraq's national security adviser, Mouwafak al-Rubaie, said the attack - which appeared well planned - was a "very clear" effort to take over the hotel and grab foreign and Arab journalists as hostages. He offered no evidence to support the claim.
Deputy Interior Minister Hussein Kamal disputed the kidnapping theory.
"There is no evidence to support this," Kamal said. "This is just an unlikely assumption. If that were the case, then there would have been gunmen with the suicide bombers. There were no gunmen."
Casualty reports varied widely. The U.S. military said six civilians were killed and 15 wounded, but al-Rubaie said at least 20 were killed and 40 wounded, mainly passers-by on the street. Kamal said four or five police officers were among the dead. Two AP employees and three other journalists inside the hotel suffered minor injuries.
No American troops were wounded, the military said. A U.S. Bradley Fighting Vehicle parked inside the compound was destroyed in the blast, but no one was inside at the time. But the toll among American service members killed in the Iraq war reached 1,997 with the announcement of a Marine killed Sunday during fighting in western Iraq.
Since the beginning of 2005, at least 465 vehicle bombings, including suicide car bombs and vehicles exploded by remote detonations, have killed at least 2,250 people in Iraq.