Insurgents Target Baghdad Hotels

An Iraqi firefighter rushes to extinguish a burning bus after an explosion in central Baghdad, Iraq, July 2, 2004. An eyewitness reported that a group of people approached Firdous Square, Baghdad, in the mini bus, disembarked from the vehicle, and then it exploded.
A day after Saddam Hussein appeared in court to hear the charges he will face, another trial ? the ongoing test of whether U.S. troops and the interim government can provide security ? continued on Baghdad's streets.

Insurgents fired rockets Friday in central Baghdad, hitting at least one hotel used by Westerners but setting their own van on fire, police and witnesses said. One man was wounded, hospital officials said.

The van, apparently used as a platform to fire the rockets, burned just off Firdous Square, where the statue of Saddam was hauled down on April 9, 2003, when Baghdad fell to American forces. Clouds of black smoke billowed over a blue domed mosque on the square.

One rocket struck the Sheraton Hotel on the opposite side of Firdous Square from the mosque but caused only minor damage. Another veered northward and exploded near the Baghdad Hotel, used by Western security contractors.

A U.S. soldier at the scene said assailants fired rockets from a homemade launcher in the back of the van. Some of the rockets caught fire before they could be launched, he said, setting the van ablaze.

Earlier, insurgents using rockets also attacked the area near Marjam Hotel, which is also used by Westerners. One rocket struck a statue in nearby Wathik Square and another landed near the Indonesian Embassy, but did not explode, police said

In other developments:

  • In the Sunni-dominated Anbar province, a U.S. Marine was killed Friday and a second died of wounds suffered in a separate engagement the previous day, the military said. At least 853 U.S. service members have died since the war began in March 2003, according to the Pentagon.
  • Saddam, who was defiant in his first filmed court appearance on Thursday, has told U.S. interrogators little of value about Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction or ties to terrorist groups, The New York Times reports. But he did hint that one reason for the 1990 invasion of Kuwait was to keep his officer corps busy, and therefore eliminate a possible coup threat.
  • In an encouraging sign, Jordan's King Abdullah II said Thursday that his country might become the first Arab state to send troops to Iraq ? if the interim government asks for help. Yemen said it also is willing to send peacekeeping soldiers to Iraq but only with a U.N. Security Council mandate.
  • Warheads believed to contain the deadly nerve agent cyclosarin that were found by Polish troops in south-central Iraq date back to Saddam Hussein's war with Iran in the 1980s, the Polish-led multinational force said Friday. But they still would have been deadly if used, the Poles said.
  • Iraqi insurgents on Friday freed two Turkish hostages whose company had reportedly promised to stop working with the U.S. military in Iraq to with their release. The two hostages, an air conditioner repairman and his co-worker, were reported missing June 1.
  • A statement issued in the name of the al Qaeda terror group has warned European states they have only two weeks to withdraw troops from Iraq or face the consequences, a pan-Arab newspaper reported Friday.
  • Four soldiers have been charged in the drowning death of an Iraqi forced to jump off a bridge in Samarra, north of Baghdad, according to media reports.
  • A U.S. soldier suspected of killing an Iraqi man in Kufa appeared before a U.S military court in Baghdad for a pretrial hearing, the U.S. military said Friday.

    In Washington, a former Coalition Provisional Authority official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters that American officials now think the insurgency in Iraq is being carried out by about 4,000 to 5,000 Saddam loyalists.

    Other violent acts are being committed by a couple hundred supporters of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and another group made up of hundreds of foreign fighters, said the official, who spoke on condition he not be identified. In addition to the hardcore members of these three groups, there are untold numbers of "supporters or facilitators," said the official, who is deeply familiar with the security situation in Iraq.

    American officials believe the followers of Saddam, not al-Zarqawi, pose the greatest threat to the new government.

    The former dictator was transferred to Iraqi legal control Wednesday but remains under U.S. guard.

    L. Paul Bremer, who ran Iraq until a few days ago, said Thursday that the nation's future as a democracy hinges on whether security forces can curb violence enough to permit elections.

    "Looking forward over the next six to eight months, the key question is going to be: Can they get security enough under control that credible elections can be held in January ? on schedule?" said Bremer, former administration of the now-defunct CPA in Iraq. "I believe they can. There's a lot of work to be done."

    Whether it was time or not, Saddam's court appearance was momentous. Unaccompanied by a lawyer, he was presented with seven preliminary charges that included gassing thousands of Kurds in 1988, the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, the suppression of 1991 revolts by Kurds and Shiites, the murders of religious and political leaders and the mass displacement of Kurds in the 1980s.

    He brushed off the charges, suggesting he had immunity as Iraq's president. And he refused to sign a statement listing the accusations.

    "Please allow me not to sign until the lawyers are present. ? Anyhow, when you take a procedure to bring me here again, present me with all these papers with the presence of lawyers. Why would you behave in a manner that we might call hasty later on?" he said.

    Afterward, 11 other defendants appeared one by one to hear the charges against them. Most appeared to be tired, broken men, shadows of their former roles as masters of Iraq.

    Best-known among the 11 are former Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, long Saddam's spokesman in the West; Ali Hasan al-Majid, known as "Chemical Ali;" and former Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan.

    Aziz denied personal involvement in any of the regime's crimes, saying, "I never killed anybody by any direct act."