Council member dies; blast hits NBC offices

Friday, September 26, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- A leading figure in Iraq's Governing Council died Thursday of wounds suffered in an ambush last week, marking the first time Iraq's violence has claimed the life of a member of the U.S.-appointed administration.

Aquila al-Hashimi's death came as a bomb damaged a hotel housing the offices of NBC News, raising fears of attacks against international media. A Somali guard was killed and an NBC sound engineer was slightly wounded in the early morning explosion at the small al-Aike Hotel in the city's fashionable Karrada district.

In the north, eight American soldiers were wounded -- three of them seriously -- when their convoy was ambushed with roadside bombs and small arms fire in Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city.

The tenuous security situation prompted U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to order a further reduction in U.N. international staff in Iraq after two bombings at U.N. headquarters, including one on Aug. 19 that killed 22 people.

And the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, warned he would use whatever force necessary to defeat those who attack American soldiers.

Al-Hashimi, one of three women on the 25-member Governing Council and the leading candidate to become Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations, died in a U.S. military hospital five days after being ambushed by six men in a pickup truck near her Baghdad home. She was to have attended the annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly in New York this week.

It was the first attack on a member of the ruling council since it was appointed in July by the U.S. administrator for Iraq, L. Paul Bremer. Al-Hashimi, who will be buried Friday, came from a prominent Shiite Muslim family and served in the Foreign Ministry during Saddam Hussein's regime.

Al-Hashimi, 50 and unmarried, was the only official of the ousted regime appointed to the new leadership. The current council president, Ahmad Chalabi, blamed the attack on Saddam loyalists; no arrests have been made.

The council declared three days of mourning beginning Thursday and said al-Hashimi "fell as a martyr on the path of freedom and democracy to build this great nation. She died at the hands of a clique of infidels and cunning people who only know darkness."

Arab League spokesman Hisham Youssef said assassinations "will never improve the situation in Iraq or achieve any results."

The explosion at the al-Aike Hotel raised fears that insurgents may also begin targeting international media, although U.S. officials said it was unclear whether NBC was the focus. NBC correspondent Jim Avila said there were no signs on the three-story building indicating NBC had quarters there. A dozen NBC staffers were in the building when the explosion took place.

The bomb exploded about 7 a.m. next to the hotel in a small hut housing the generator, killing the Somali night watchman as he slept and wounding Canadian sound engineer David Moodie.

"I was awake," said Moodie, who received a deep cut from flying glass. "A chest of drawers in the room fell on me. I sleep in the room immediately above the generator, so I guess I was lucky."

NBC News spokeswoman Allison Gollust said the network remained "dedicated to covering the story while doing everything possible to ensure the safety and security of our employees."

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists cited concerns about inadequate security at some hotels used by media in Baghdad.

Coalition forces toppled the regime in April but have been facing a guerrilla-style insurgency, especially in areas dominated by the minority Sunni Muslim community. President Bush declared an end to major combat on May 1; since then, 85 Americans and 12 Britons have been killed in hostile encounters.

Concern over security was behind Annan's decision to pare down U.N. staff even as major countries urge a greater role for the world body in Iraq's reconstruction.

At the time of the Aug. 19 bombing there were about 300 international staff in Baghdad and another 300 elsewhere in Iraq. That figure was reduced to 42 in Baghdad and 44 in the north, and U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said those numbers "can be expected to shrink further in the next few days."

Sanchez, the U.S. commander, said "terrorist elements" were "targeting the international community, targeting the Iraqi people and targeting coalition forces."

Sanchez also said U.S. troops would respond robustly to any attacks and defended a decision by a unit of the 82nd Airborne Division to call in an airstrike on a farmhouse in al-Sajr this week in which three men were killed and three other people, including two boys, were wounded. U.S. officials said the airstrike was launched after gunmen fired on an American patrol and took refuge in a house.

"We will use the force that is necessary to defeat an enemy force that has been declared hostile," Sanchez said. "And when an individual engages our force, he, or that entity, is a hostile force."

Bush is struggling to win international support for a U.N. resolution designed to bring fresh peacekeeping troops and financial support.

The Pentagon is considering a call-up of more reserves and National Guard units. There are 130,000 American troops in Iraq, supported by several thousand peacekeepers from Britain, Poland and other supporting countries.

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