BAGHDAD, Iraq -- A white car sped up to the thick wall protecting the Palestine Hotel and exploded, blasting out a section of the concrete. Within minutes, suicide bombers in two other vehicles struck.
One of them, a cement truck, made it through the hole in the wall -- but apparently became stuck and blew up after a U.S. soldier opened fire on it. Had the driver traveled 20 or 30 yards farther and detonated the bomb at the hotel entrance, the attack could have killed many people inside the Palestine, where foreign journalists and contractors are based.
As it was, American troops and journalists escaped without serious injury but at least a half-dozen passers-by were killed.
The deafening attack sent up a giant cloud of smoke and debris over central Baghdad, and cars swerved wildly on a roundabout to escape the explosions. Inside the 19-story hotel, the force of the blasts triggered confusion and panic, shattered glass, tore pictures off walls and brought down light fixtures and ceilings.
The attack happened at dusk just as Iraqis would have been breaking the daylong fast they observe during the holy month of Ramadan and eating their first meal, called Iftar. It could have been an effort to catch Iraqi security forces at a vulnerable moment when they might have been less attentive.
Iraq's national security adviser, Mouwafak al-Rubaie, said the attack -- which appeared well planned -- was a "very clear" effort to take over the hotel and grab foreign and Arab journalists as hostages. He offered no evidence to support the claim.
Deputy Interior Minister Hussein Kamal disputed the kidnapping theory.
"There is no evidence to support this," Kamal said. "This is just an unlikely assumption. If that were the case, then there would have been gunmen with the suicide bombers. There were no gunmen."
Casualty reports varied widely. The U.S. military said six civilians were killed and 15 wounded, but al-Rubaie said at least 20 were killed and 40 wounded, mainly passers-by on the street. Kamal said four or five police officers were among the dead. Two Associated Press employees and three other journalists inside the hotel suffered minor injuries.
No American troops were wounded, the military said. A U.S. Bradley Fighting Vehicle parked inside the compound was destroyed in the blast, but no one was inside at the time. But the toll among American service members killed in the Iraq war reached 1,997 with the announcement of a Marine killed Sunday during fighting in western Iraq.
Since the beginning of 2005, at least 465 vehicle bombings, including suicide car bombs and vehicles exploded by remote detonations, have killed at least 2,250 people in Iraq.
Security still photos showed a clear attempt to attack the hotel on Monday.
The assault began when at 5:21 p.m. the white car drove up to the concrete blast wall that separates the hotel complex from Firdous Square, where a giant statue of Saddam Hussein was pulled down after U.S. troops captured Baghdad on April 9, 2003.
That vehicle exploded, blasting out a section of the wall.
Two minutes later and on the opposite side of the square, a second car blew up next to the 14th Ramadan Mosque. The U.S. military said it appeared the car tried to aim for the breach in the blast wall but was stopped by Iraqi security forces near the mosque, and detonated.
Then, one minute later, the cement truck drove through the breach and appeared to get about 15 to 20 feet inside the compound when it suddenly stopped. It repeatedly drove short distances back and forth, as if stuck on something, as gunfire broke out, according to the still photos and Associated Press Television News footage. Then it exploded in a huge yellow ball of fire and smoke.
The U.S. military said an American soldier fired on the cement truck as it tried to move through the breached wall. The military speculated that the reason for the truck's rocking back and forth was that it may have been stuck on debris from the first blast or perhaps because small arms fire had flattened its tires, damaged its engine or wounded the driver.
Al-Rubaie told The Associated Press the men in the cars were armed with rocket-propelled grenades and light arms.
"The plan was very clear to us, which was to take security control over the two hotels, and to take the foreign and Arab journalists as hostages to use them as a bargain," he said. He refused to say if there were more cars involved, or if there were gunmen elsewhere to carry out the kidnappings.
An AP driver who was headed home at the time reported seeing three vehicles headed toward the square at high speed, striking the concrete barriers and then exploding.
After the bombing, Iraqi forces opened up with heavy automatic weapons fire, apparently shooting at random. There was no sign of a further assault on the hotel.
There was minor damage to the hotel, which was last hit in an insurgent rocket attack on Oct. 7, 2004. Moments before the second blast, journalists, photographers and technicians were walking up and down hazy corridors in a state of confusion, urging each other to remain calm, put on flak jackets, and to stay away from windows. Thicker clouds of smoke filled the far end of one hallway, with many people coughing and waving their hands.
The second explosion shook the building momentarily. Confusion and panic again set in, with those inside debating whether to exit, but all eventually deciding to stay in the corridor and sit propped against walls, most in flak jackets. Sounds resembling gunshots could be heard outside.
Strips of floorboards were strewn about and air vents were blown in.
One AP journalist in the building at the time, Thomas Wagner, called the blasts "deafening."
"The impact pushed us forward in our chairs," he said.
He noted that the journalists at the Palestine often can hear the distant blast of other attacks. "But I've never felt blasts as strong or as loud as the ones Monday," Wagner said.
Britain's Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the indiscriminate killings had been carried out in the name of a "totally perverted ideology."
"It is a further illustration of the evil that we are dealing with," Straw said.
In New York, the Committee to Protect Journalists issued a statement condemning the bombings.
"These appalling attacks are fresh reminders of the myriad dangerous facing those who continue to report from Iraq," CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said.
The hotel complex has come under rocket fire from insurgents in the past, although there have been no media fatalities. Two journalists died when a U.S. tank opened fire on the Palestine in April 2003 as American forces captured Baghdad. The committee said the killings were not deliberate but could have been avoided.
Reporters Without Borders also vigorously condemned the bombings.
"By attacking the Hotel Palestine, which is commonly known to be home to many foreign journalists, those behind this cowardly attack sought to deliberately target the Western media," the press freedom organization stated.