12:09 PM CST on Wednesday, March 17, 2004
BAGHDAD, Iraq - A large explosion destroyed a hotel in central Baghdad on Wednesday night, killing up to 10 people, Iraqi police said. A U.S. soldier at the scene said the damage was consistent with that of a car bomb.
Rescuers pulled bodies from the rubble of the five-story Hotel Jabal Lebanon. The explosion left a huge crater. Five smaller, adjacent buildings were badly damaged.
Flames shot skyward, and heavy smoke rose behind a central square from the area of the blast. Trees were on fire, and flames jumped to nearby buildings. Eight cars were on fire, and one vehicle was hurled by the blast into a store. An Iraqi police officer at the scene said as many as 10 people died and that the toll could be higher.
Dozens of U.S. soldiers in Humvees and Bradley fighting vehicles arrived and started to clear crowds. Earlier, two U.S. soldiers tried to help pull bodies from the wreckage of the hotel, but angry Iraqis pushed them back.
The blast shook the nearby Palestine Hotel, where many foreign contractors and journalists are based. The area of the blast, Karrada, is a mix of residential and commercial buildings.
The explosion took place behind Firdaus Square, where a bronze statue of Saddam Hussein was felled April 9 with the help of U.S. Marines who had just entered the center of the Iraqi capital.
Earlier Wednesday, the Iraqi Governing Council asked the United Nations for help putting together a new government, a council spokesman said.
The council requested that U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan send a U.N. team back to Iraq to help organize a government that would take over from the U.S.-led coalition June 30, council spokesman Hamid al-Kafaai told The Associated Press.
The letter sent by council president Mohammed Bahr al-Ulloum, a Shiite cleric, also requested technical assistance in preparation for a general election due by the end of January 2005.
"The Governing Council has asked that the United Nations offers advice to Iraq in the field of elections and the formation of a transitional government," al-Kafaai said.
The United States has urged a U.N. role in the U.S.-backed political process for Iraq, and coalition spokesman Dan Senor welcomed news of the invitation.
The announcement of the invitation, decided in a council meeting Wednesday, followed remarks to reporters by Bahr al-Ulloum's deputy that Iraq's most powerful Shiite cleric and his supporters on the U.S.-appointed Governing Council were unhappy with a U.N. report last month that found Iraq unready for elections ahead of June 30.
Sami al-Askari said several council members did not think the return to Iraq of U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi would be helpful and that Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani would not receive him if he returned.
"It is not Brahimi's personality, but some members have some reservations about the contents of his report and believe his return at the head of a U.N. delegation will hinder" the U.N. role in Iraq, said al-Askari.
Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister, was in Iraq last month at the head of a team of U.N. experts to investigate whether elections could be held before June 30. In a report, he said such a vote was not feasible, giving reasons long cited by Washington -- no electoral structure, no reliable census and an untenable security situation.
At a news conference, al-Askari said: "His Eminence al-Sistani and many Shiites are unhappy with the report that the United Nations and Lakhdar Brahimi issued because it gives a lopsided picture of realities and facts, and paints a picture of a sectarian problem in Iraq."
Al-Askari was accompanied by Ahmad Chalabi, a powerful Shiite council member who said the council had agreed on the text of a letter to the United Nations. But Chalabi, who opposes Brahimi's return, said only that the letter recognized the expertise of the United Nations in the field of elections.
Also Wednesday, U.S.