BAGHDAD, Iraq — A huge car bomb ripped through the capital's downtown Wednesday night, shattering a hotel housing foreigners and killing at least 27 people, including several Iraqis in nearby houses. The bombing was a grim reminder of the continuing dangers in Iraq nearly a year after President Bush launched the war to topple Saddam Hussein.
The attack was the latest in a string of 11 major bombings this year that have killed more than 470 people, mostly Iraqis. It brought fiery mayhem to the center of the city on the day that U.S. troops launched "Operation Iron Promise," searching dozens of Baghdad neighborhoods for insurgents and weapons.
The blast, about 8:10 p.m. local time, occurred in front of the five-story Mount Lebanon Hotel, where 10 foreign guests were registered and a staff of 15 Iraqis worked. Officials said the explosion, which wounded 41, was probably the result of plastic explosives and artillery shells concealed in a vehicle.
Like other recent attacks, most of the injured and killed were Iraqis who were living nearby or passing by.
Wednesday's attack was sure to increase anger and frustration of Iraqis who frequently complain that their capital is descending deeper into violence under the U.S.-led occupation.
Like the other attacks, there was no claim of responsibility, though U.S. and Iraqi officials said Jordanian Islamic militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — who U.S. officials say has ties to al-Qaida — is a prime suspect.
The hotel's staff of 15 and guests included British, Egyptians, Jordanians and Lebanese, according to U.S. Army officials on the scene. Lt. Col. Peter Jones said foreigners staying at the hotel may have been businessmen, though that had not been confirmed. There were conflicting reports late Wednesday about whether Americans were near the blast, but none was seriously wounded. Newsday reported that three American civilians and two Britons were believed to be among those wounded in the blast.
U.S. troops, Iraqi security and rescue personnel and local residents dug through the rubble by hand to remove the dead and wounded. Witnesses described a horrific scene of wounded crawling from the wreckage. Bodies and body parts were scattered among the ruins.
The blast blew large chunks from the facade of the hotel and left a cone-shaped crater about 10 feet wide in the road. The explosion set the hotel on fire and ignited nearby cars and palm trees.
"It's ridiculous. People were sleeping in their beds. What did they do?" asked Haider al-Sharkarchi, owner of the nearby Swan Lake Hotel, which had its windows blown out by the blast.
The worst damage was suffered at two homes across the narrow street. They were nearly destroyed, leaving piles of bricks and girders and the remains of a back wall.
Rescue crews were digging through the rubble of the homes late Wednesday looking for several people who family members said were missing.
The hotel is just a few blocks from the heavily fortified Palestine and Sheraton hotels, which are home to hundreds of foreign journalists and private contractors working with the American-led coalition.
"I heard the explosion and ran down the street right away, but I could not get through the flames," Ahmed Jassim, 23, told the Reuters news agency. "I saw many people dead and there were people lying burning on the road, screaming."
The attack came just 3 1/2 months before U.S. forces are to hand over authority to an interim Iraqi government on June 30.
In Washington, White House spokesman Scott McClellan vowed that "the terrorists will not prevail."
The attack was just a few blocks from Firdos Square, where U.S. Marines and Iraqis pulled down a statue of Saddam last April. It is a middle class, mixed commercial and residential neighborhood that is heavily populated by Shiite Muslims, who have largely kept out of the anti-American resistance.
U.S. officials have blamed foreign Arab extremists led by al-Zarqawi — and possibly working with Iraqis — for the recent major bombings, but they have had little success in identifying the perpetrators.
Jones said most of those wounded Wednesday were in nearby homes or people passing on the street, which is a branch connecting two large roads. Windows were shattered in homes, businesses and two hospitals several blocks away from the blast site.
"I was walking to the hotel and the explosion was in my face," said Jassim Adel al-Jumali, 30, a hospital worker.
Asked who he believed carried out the attack, he responded, "I swear to God, I don't know."
Relatives of the residents came to the U.S. Army cordon around the blast site and argued with the soldiers for access to check on loved ones. Some walked dazed and teary-eyed.
As in most recent bombings, many Iraqis at the scene insisted the attack was from a missile strike launched by American forces to provide a premise for their continued presence in the country.
The plague of bombings has struck police stations, political party offices, coalition offices and crowded religious sites. Two weeks ago simultaneous bombings at holy sites in Baghdad and Karbala killed more than 180 people.
In a separate development Wednesday, Iraq's Interim Governing Council asked U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to dispatch a U.N. team to help put together a government that would take over from the U.S.-led coalition on June 30. The council also requested assistance for planning a general election to take place by the end of January 2005.
Bush administration officials said the deadly attack would not deter the transfer of power to Iraqis.
"Their goal is to prevent the rise of democracy," Vice President Dick Cheney said in a speech Wednesday at the Ronald Reagan presidential library, "but they will fail."
President Bush is scheduled to travel Thursday to Fort Campbell, an Army base in Kentucky, to address some 20,000 soldiers recently returned from Iraq.
Bush is scheduled to mark the one-year anniversary of the start of the war on Friday with a speech from the East Room of the White House and a visit to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where many soldiers wounded in Iraq are recuperating.
Democrat John Kerry used a campaign appearance in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday to criticize the administration's "failed policies" in Iraq and an occupation "with no end in sight."
Contributing: Bob Deans, Cox News Service