August 21, 2003

Baghdad Bomb Had the Mark of Experts

By Patrick J. McDonnell and Tracy Wilkinson, Times Staff Writers


The bomb that devastated the United Nations complex in Baghdad was a potent blend of Soviet-era artillery shells, mortar rounds and grenades packed around a powerful centerpiece--a 500-pound bomb meant to be dropped from an aircraft, the FBI said Wednesday.

Although the explosives are widely available in armament-strewn Iraq, the bomb's structure suggests a high level of expertise, authorities said.

"This was not a homemade bomb," said Thomas Fuentes, the FBI official heading the investigation. "We're talking about highly powerful, military-grade munitions."

Investigators are considering a wide array of potential attackers, including Saddam Hussein loyalists, foreign and domestic terrorist groups and religious extremists or some combination of these and others enraged at the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq.

The use of weaponry once part of the largely Soviet-equipped Iraqi arsenal strongly suggests a connection to Hussein loyalists.

The munitions were standard issue and would have been relatively easy to obtain for any Iraqi close to the nation's former security apparatus. And many former military men in Iraq are well trained in explosives and sabotage.

The FBI said it was too early to say whether the bombing was a purely Iraqi operation or involved foreign collaborators. At the least, the sheer size of the bomb suggested an operation involving several people.

The proliferation of munitions in Iraq underscores a deep irony: While no one has yet found the alleged weapons of mass destruction that were the catalyst for the war to topple Hussein's regime, the easy availability of high-powered explosives provides anti-U.S. militants with an almost limitless supply of conventional weaponry with which to wreak considerable havoc and destruction.

The audacity and precision of Tuesday's attack also suggest a foreign hand, according to several Iraqis.

"There is a feeling, based on accumulated data from the past, that it is the remnants of Saddam's regime and their 'friends' " who staged the attack, said Ahmad Chalabi, a member of the fledgling Iraqi Governing Council, at a news conference Wednesday.

Chalabi did not offer evidence of his claim.

Officials with the Governing Council, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that U.S. as well as Iraqi officials had intelligence that Hussein loyalists and Muslim extremists had met about a week before the bombing and planned a large attack on a "soft target" in Baghdad.

Chalabi said the information was detailed.

"The information specifically said the attack would use a truck and would be carried out by using a suicide mechanism or by remote control," he said.

A Pentagon spokeswoman said officials there and at the U.S. Central Command were unaware of any notification by Chalabi of a potential terrorist threat.

Tuesday's massive blast the second in Baghdad in less than two weeks added to the debate here over the extent to which foreign fighters have joined the campaign against U.S.-led forces.

L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. administrator in Iraq, said this month that several hundred operatives from the Islamic extremist group Ansar al Islam who fled their bases in northern Iraq during the war have slipped back into the country since May 1, and that radical Iranians and suspected members of the Al Qaeda terrorist network have also entered. Some have used passports from Sudan, Yemen and Syria, according to Bremer.

The U.N. bombing was "of a different scale than the ones we've seen here before," he said after the attack.

"It does not mean that we can exclude the possibility that the Fedayeen Saddam [militia] or some of the old Saddam guys did it," he said. "They had very substantial explosives capabilities in parts of their intelligence services, and it's not impossible that it was done by them."

The degree to which foreign and home-grown groups cooperate remains a matter of debate. An emerging theory is that well-armed former Baath Party militants may now be teaming up with Islamic extremists from outside the country who see occupied Iraq as the new battleground against the West.

Body parts discovered amid the truck wreckage point to a suicide mission in Tuesday's attack, the FBI said, but officials were awaiting forensic examination of samples that were to be sent to the United States.

Another possibility is that the lethal package went off somewhat prematurely, not giving the driver or others in the truck time to escape.

Several Iraqis interviewed, including police Maj. Riad Kadhm, whose precinct is participating in the U.S.-led inquiry, said it was not likely that many Iraqis would eagerly take on a suicide mission.

There is no tradition of suicide bombings in Iraq. The intense religious zeal, for example, that motivates some Palestinian suicide bombers has not materialized here to the same degree; in fact, several recent fatwas, or religious edicts, have instructed Muslim Iraqis to remain calm.

A suicide mission, Kadhm said, suggests the participation of Ansar or other more radical elements.

U.S. intelligence officials working with the FBI said they had yet to determine who was behind Tuesday's blast.

"Right now, there's nothing that would point one way or the other," one U.S. official said. "And no one we've seen has stepped forward."

The official said a bombing that killed 17 people this month outside the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad involved some sort of dynamite-like explosives, not the aerial bomb, hand grenades and other military munitions used in Tuesday's truck bomb at the U.N. headquarters.

The attack on the Embassy involved a truck but was not a suicide attack, the FBI says. In that case, someone parked the bomb-laden vehicle and walked away before it was detonated.

"It's too early to tell whether or not they're related," the official said.

Another official said U.S. eavesdroppers had intercepted no phone calls or other electronic "chatter" between suspected terrorists in Iraq or elsewhere that clearly indicated whether Al Qaeda or one of its affiliate groups was responsible for either attack. "It just isn't clear yet," he said.

In Tuesday's bombing, plotters loaded the lethal amalgamation weighing as much as 1,500 pounds onto a huge flatbed, had it driven to an unguarded alley adjacent to the U.N. compound and detonated it around 4:30 p.m., the FBI said. The size of the charge means a team of attackers must have been involved, the FBI said.

The truck its lethal cargo presumably concealed was somehow able to maneuver its way through busy Baghdad streets to its destination without raising suspicion among occupying forces. The FBI dismissed early reports that the vehicle was a cement mixer.

So powerful was the explosive heap that there was no need to drive the truck into the U.N. compound: The adjoining alley was only 10 yards or so away from the building, and a protective concrete wall put up recently was obliterated.

The blast left a crater more than 10 feet deep and sent what is thought to be a piece of the truck's bumper flying more than 500 yards, across a nearby highway and canal. Authorities believe they have found the truck's identifying numbers its license, engine and vehicle ID numbers. But tracking the vehicle's ownership will take time, because many of those records were destroyed or looted in the U.S. invasion and its aftermath. The truck may have once been part of a government fleet, the FBI said.

"This is not as easy to investigate as it would be back in the United States," said Fuentes, assigned to Iraq a month ago from his regular duty as head of the FBI office in Indianapolis. "You can't just telephone some of these people and make an appointment for them to come over to your office."

Still unclear is whether the truck was parked in a specific site to kill the top U.N. official, Sergio Vieira de Mello who died in the blast or whether its placement in line with his office was simply designed to ensure maximum carnage.

Times staff writer Bob Drogin in Washington contributed to this report.

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