After remaining silent during the referendum on Iraq’s constitution and over one week afterwards, al Qaeda in Iraq launches a coordinated attack on the Palestine Hotel. The target choice was carefully chosen by al Qaeda for maximum media exposure as the hotel is widely used by the international media. Reuters said it best; “The bombings [occurred] at dusk in front of rolling television cameras and guaranteed global media coverage.”
The Associated Press has a timeline of the events. The attack occurred within a span of four minutes. The numbered events are marked on the accompanying map of the Palestine Hotel and its environs.
The first car successfully destroys the concrete barrier (#1), while the second car suffers from premature detonation and blows up on the other side of the traffic circle, next to a mosque (#2). Reports indicate Iraqi police stopped car #2. The cement truck lumbers through the breach made by car #1, but gets stuck and detonates after being engaged by a U.S. soldier (#3).
(#1) 5:21 p.m. A white car stops on the traffic circle just outside the concrete blast wall that protects the hotel compound. The car explodes in a huge yellow flash. As the smoke clears, a wide section of the wall is blown open.
(#2) 5:23 p.m. There is a second car bomb explosion on the other side of the traffic circle to the left of the 14th Ramadan mosque. The Ministry of Agriculture also is about 100 yards from the explosion.
5:24 p.m. A cement truck drives through the void in the concrete wall and down a road that runs between the Palestine Hotel and the Sheraton hotel, also inside the walled compound. The truck moves about 20 feet toward the hotels, when it appears to become stuck. It moves backward and forward several times, seemingly trying to get free. The truck is fired on by a U.S. soldier inside the compound.
(#3) 5:25 p.m. The cement truck explodes in a huge ball of fire.
The attack was well planned and coordinated, but not necessarily well executed. One possibility is the plan called for the the two cars were to breach the concrete barrier surrounding the hotel and any unforeseen obstacles inside the complex, while the cement mixer was to ram the hotel and unleash its payload. Another possibility is the first car was to breach the concrete barrier while the second car and the cement truck would aim at either the same building or at the Palestinian and Sheraton hotels individually. The Iraqi police may have averted a catastrophy by uncovering the second car.
Exact casualty numbers are unknown, estimates range from 5 dead and 16 wounded to 20 dead and 40 wounded. This is not the first attempt on the Palestinian Hotel; al Qaeda took a stab at the Palestine in May of 2004 in an attack that killed 29 and wounded over 50.
While al Qaeda was banking on a huge casualty count, along with the deaths of international journalists caught on film, the attack failed due to the quick reaction of the Iraqi police and the unnamed U.S. soldier. A similar multi-car bomb suicide assault was carried out by al Qaeda at Abu Ghraib prison last April. A three vehicle element – a car, pickup truck and a firetruck were launched at the prison gates. In the failed attack on Abu Ghraib, a ground element was used (and butchered) in conjunction with the suicide element. No such luxury existed for al Qaeda today.
al Qaeda must attempt project its relevance on the Iraqi scene after it failed to thwart the constitutional referendum. This attack was well planned in advance and used significant resources to execute. While al Qaeda still has the capacity to execute mass casualty assaults such as the one witnessed today, their ability to influence the political progress or the establishment of the Iraqi Security Forces diminishes over time. It is a measure of desperation when al Qaeda attacks the media, as al Qaeda depends on their promotion of jihadi violence for their survival and recruitment. In the words of Ayman al-Zawahiri to Zarqawi; “we are in a battle, and that more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media.” Indeed it is.
No doubt al Qaeda had its own propaganda crews taping the event. The media’s reaction to viewing al Qaeda’s purposeful attack on their own is unlikely to match their fury over the accidental deaths of journalists during Operation Iraqi Freedom by U.S. forces at the very same hotel. Such is the war we fight.
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