Baghdad, March 17 (Agencies): A powerful blast ripped through a Baghdad hotel and neighbouring houses in the heart of the Iraqi capital today, killing several people and sending a column of flames into the night sky three days before the first anniversary of the American invasion.
Quoting US military, CNN said at least 25 people have been killed. Americans, Britons, Egyptians as well as other foreigners were staying in the hotel, the Mount Lebanon.
The explosion occurred near Firdows Square, where a statue of Saddam Hussein was symbolically toppled on April 9 last year when US troops rolled into the city. It was also close to the Sheraton and Palestine hotels, where many foreign contractors, companies and media organisations are based.
Asked about reports angry Iraqis at the scene had attacked American soldiers, a US military spokesman told Britain’s Sky News television: “We do have a quick reaction force on site. They are assisting Iraqi police.”
Deputy Iraqi interior minister Ahmed Kadhim blamed a guerrilla rocket attack for the blast, but a US military spokesman said the cause was not yet known and some reports said it was possibly a car bombing.
“It has to be a car bomb. No rocket could cause that amount of damage,” said an American soldier.
The White House said the blast would not sway US determination to bring democracy to Iraq. “This is a time of testing. We will continue to stay to finish the job for the Iraqi people,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
Reuters correspondent Luke Baker said several bodies were being pulled out of the rubble of the small hotel, used mainly by Iraqis and Arabs.
The hotel, neighbouring buildings and several cars were ablaze, and rescuers said many people were trapped under the rubble. “I heard the explosion and I ran down the street, and saw many, many people killed. There were children dead,” said Raad Abdul Karim, 30.
Karim said the neighbourhood was populated by Shias, Sunnis and Kurds. “They are ordinary families,” he said, as ambulances and police cars raced to the scene and crowds of frantic Iraqis rushed to look for friends and relatives.
The blast carved out a huge crater around seven metres across and three metres deep in the road outside the hotel.