BAGHDAD -- Striking at the heart of US power, guerrillas launched a brazen volley of rockets at the Al Rasheed hotel yesterday, killing a US soldier who was staying one floor below visiting Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz.
Seventeen people, including 11 Americans, were injured by the rockets fired from a crudely fashioned multiple-rocket launcher in the early-morning attack on the heavily fortified hotel, a prominent symbol of the US-led occupation.
Wolfowitz, on a tour intended to highlight what he described as the improving security situation in postwar Iraq, emerged unharmed but seemed shaken.
"This terrorist act will not deter us from completing our mission, which is to help the Iraqi people free themselves from the type of criminals who did this," he told reporters at a press conference called after a series of explosions shook the hotel shortly after 6 a.m. local time.
The attacks continued in central Baghdad this morning. A bomb exploded near a building belonging to the International Committee of the Red Cross, creating a massive fire outside the building.
The bomb was the first of a series of blasts that rumbled through the city this morning. US Brigadier General Mark Hertling told CNN that the army had reports of 10 Iraqis dead and at least 10 injured. He did not specify where the casualties occurred.
One witness said the initial bomb was packed in an ambulance, but there was no confirmation from police. A Red Cross staffer, Mahdi Saad, said several people were believed to have been killed or injured inside the building, which appeared to have suffered some damage.
"Of course we don't understand why somebody would attack the Red Cross," she said. "It's very hard to understand." She said the group has been working in Iraq since 1980 and "has not been involved in any politics."
Three other blasts could be heard throughout the city following the Red Cross blast. Witnesses said one blast was in the Khadra neighborhood, where the relief organization CARE is located. Another was in the Shaab district near the Industry Ministry, another witness said.
Hertling said the other blasts were car bombs as well, and he credited Iraqi police with preventing the bombers from reaching their targets.
In yesterday's rocket attack on the Al Rasheed hotel, the top US administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, said he did not know whether Wolfowitz, widely viewed as the architect of the Bush administration's Iraq policy, was the intended target.
"We certainly had a bad day," Bremer told the ABC television news program "This Week."
"Freedom still has its enemies in Iraq, and we've got to expect that we're going to have to defeat these terrorists and these Ba'athists before we get to a more secure situation."
Brigadier General Martin Dempsey, who commands the Army's First Armored Division and was in the hotel when the attack occurred, said he thought the rocket attack was timed to undermine what he said were positive developments and the improved sense of security in Baghdad.
He said the assailants intended to discredit the coalition as a key bridge over the Tigris River was opened and the nighttime curfew in Baghdad was lifted. Both measures were taken in honor of the holy month of Ramadan, which starts in Iraq today.
The rocket launcher was housed in a blue electrical-generator van parked about 400 yards from the 18-story hotel.
Several assailants unhitched the trailer from a GMC truck and sped away before the eight rockets ignited. Six of rockets hit the western side of the hotel and two pounded the concrete barriers at the entrance.
The rockets blasted holes in the concrete facade, smashed windows, and left smoke billowing from the hotel, which houses hundreds of US military personnel and US contractors.
"We heard a loud explosion and then more coming one after another," said Thomas Hartwell, 48, of Austin, Texas, a photographer for USAID in Baghdad.
He described the chaotic aftermath as hundreds of people, some dressed only in pajamas, fled down smoke-filled stairwells that dripped with water from burst pipes and were made slippery by the blood of the wounded.
"I had told my wife not to worry because I was staying in a safe hotel," Hartwell said, adding that he plans to pull out of his assignment in the coming days. "I'm not sure there is anyplace that is completely safe in Baghdad."
Wolfowitz, on a three-day tour of Iraq, has been speaking to troops at garrisons and praising the US-led occupation, which he had described Saturday as "a wonderful success story."
That message was sharply undercut by the escalating insurgency by disparate guerrilla forces that include former Iraqi soldiers loyal to the toppled regime, Islamic militants, and volunteer fighters from neighboring countries.
The day before the rocket attack on the hotel, a US Black Hawk helicopter was downed in Tikrit hours after Wolfowitz had spoken at a military garrison there.
The day before that, three US soldiers were killed and at least 17 others were wounded in a series of mortar attacks and firefights around Iraq.
The 17 wounded in the attack on the Al Rasheed included seven US civilians, four US military personnel, two Iraqi policemen who had been stationed in front of the hotel, and four "non-US coalition civilian partners," according to a statement by the US command.
The Al Rasheed was evacuated yesterday, and personnel were moved to a variety of military garrisons and hotels. It was not clear yesterday whether the military officials and contractors would return.
The hotel lies in the compound known as the Green Zone, which is used by the US-led occupation forces. Last night shortly after 9, two more loud explosions could be heard inside the area. The explosions echoed across the city and seemed to be caused by mortars.
US military officials said they were investigating the blasts inside the Green Zone, which is ringed by 15-foot high, solid concrete blast walls, and mile after mile of barbed wire and checkpoints manned with tanks.
The attack on the Al Rasheed yesterday penetrated all those defenses. In a matter of minutes, it left a deepening sense of vulnerability for occupation forces and heightened a sense of insecurity that pervades Baghdad nearly six months after President Bush declared an end to major combat operations.
Dempsey, who was in the hotel at the time, said the attack probably took a couple of months to plan.
"No doubt it required some reconnaissance and some rehearsal . . . some time to weld this apparatus together [and] probably a rehearsal to pull this into position," he said at a news conference.
Dempsey described the makeshift device as "clever," explaining it was disguised to look like a portable generator. It was a crudely soldered set of tubes with 40 pods to contain missiles. Eight missiles hit the hotel, and 11 left in the launcher apparently did not detonate.
The launcher also was booby-trapped. US forces had to defuse explosives in the wheel wells, Dempsey said.
The Al Rasheed has been hit before. Last month, a mortar struck the hotel but caused only minor damage and no injuries.
The Al Rasheed carries a slogan that is ubiquitous on billboards, "More Than Just a Hotel." It was long a symbol of the elite of Saddam Hussein's regime and was often packed with Western journalists during the different crises that measure Iraq's modern history. It was rocketed in 1998 during Operation Desert Fox. A mosaic at its entry read "George Bush -- Criminal." The sign referred to the father of the current president and was installed during the Gulf War of 1991, but it seemed to convey the feelings of many supporters of the Iraqi regime in the most recent war. The mosaic has been removed and replaced by smooth gray marble.
In a middle-class neighborhood that lies in the shadows of the Al Rasheed hotel, residents gathered in clusters debating what had happened and what it meant. Many expressed support for the rocket attack on the Al Rasheed.
Vikra Hamit, 30, a schoolteacher and mother of four, said: "If they attack American forces, the soldiers occupying our country, they have the right to do it. Wouldn't you fight if someone was occupying your country?"
But a neighbor, Ali Hussein, 38, disagreed: "No. We reject this. Even if we want to see the occupation end, this is not the way to do it."
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.