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Iraq: Baghdad Hotels Rocked By Early-Morning Explosions

Two Baghdad hotels known to house Westerners and the Iraqi Oil Ministry came under rocket attack early this morning. The assaults, which come after several days of relative calm, claimed no lives. But they delivered an unmistakable message that foreigners are increasingly unwelcome in Iraq.

Baghdad, 21 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The early-morning quiet of Baghdad was shattered today with a series of rocket assaults against the Iraqi Oil Ministry and two international hotels in central Baghdad.

The attacks on the two neighboring hotels were nearly simultaneous. The Palestine and the Sheraton -- which are both known to house foreign journalists, businessmen, and members of the U.S. provisional administration -- have long been regarded as potential terrorist targets.

An Iraqi who lives near the two hotels said the blasts shook the entire neighborhood. "At about 7:15 in the morning, there was a very powerful explosion that shook the whole area," he said. "I went out and saw two donkey carts with some things on it, and they were rocket launchers. They launched about eight rockets toward the Palestine Hotel and they hit the upper part, somewhere between the 14th and 17th floors of the hotel."

A reporter from "The New York Times" staying in the Palestine later reported the rockets struck the 15th and 16th floors of the hotel, where rooms are almost exclusively occupied by Westerners.

A U.S. military spokesman, Army Colonel Peter Mansoor, told reporters one civilian was wounded at the Palestine Hotel. Hotel staff said the injured person worked for a U.S. company involved in the reconstruction of Iraq.

Dana Baschova, a Czech citizen who lives and works in Baghdad, is staying in a third hotel some 50 meters from the Palestine and the Sheraton. She says she was woken up by the powerful explosions. "The noise, the explosion was the strongest one I've ever heard," she said. "Our hotel is also close to the Red Cross building, and this was much stronger [than the 27 October attack on the Red Cross]. So I was woken up and I just ran out from my bed and we went to see what happened. Usually when there is an explosion, you can see smoke, but there was nothing to see at the beginning because they were rockets and you cannot see that much and it seems that the damage was not that big."

At roughly the same time as the hotel attacks, two rockets were fired at the Oil Ministry located nearby. There were no reports of casualties in either that assault or the attack on the Sheraton.

The area around the blast sites was quickly sealed off by U.S. troops, with helicopters conducting patrols overhead. Many people traveling to work in the same area were blocked by guards, and traffic jams clogged several major streets around the hotels.

The Iraqi Oil Ministry is one of the few government buildings that was not looted in the days following the collapse of the regime. The enormous building, which also houses the Electricity Ministry, is surrounded by 3-meter-high concrete walls and is heavily guarded by U.S. troops and Iraqi police.

The security measures make it inaccessible for a suicide assault, but the tall building is still an easy target for guerrilla fighters armed with rocket launchers.

Few people were in the ministry building, as it was attacked early in the morning and on Friday, the Muslim day of rest.

Colonel Mansoor told journalists outside the Oil Ministry that U.S. troops "have leads and are pursuing them." A makeshift rocket launcher fitted with 30 rockets was also found close to the Italian Embassy.

Today's attacks came after an announcement yesterday by U.S. military that its new counterinsurgent offensive, Operation Iron Hammer, is proving successful. U.S. Army General Martin Dempsey said attacks on U.S. troops have dropped some 70 percent since the launch of the operation 12 days ago.