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Car bomb kills 5 in Baghdad, hurts 24

New Year's Eve blast rips through restaurant

By Anne Barnard
Globe Staff / January 1, 2004

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BAGHDAD -- A car bomb in central Baghdad tore through a restaurant packed with dozens of people dancing and celebrating New Year's Eve, killing five Iraqis and wounding 24 people, including three reporters for the Los Angeles Times.

The explosion shook Nabil, an Italian restaurant on a well-to-do shopping street, at 9:24 p.m. The blast collapsed a section of the roof of the one-story structure, blew out windows, and flung blackened car parts across the street.

"The people who did that are not honorable people," said Sattar Jabber, a restaurant worker who was injured in the explosion.

"They didn't think about our innocence, or about attacking at a time like the new year," he said as he crouched in the street a block from the restaurant, weeping and fingering the bandage on his head.

The night had begun with a festive air on Baghdad's streets as Iraqis danced and honked car horns to greet the first new year since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

But US troops had also stepped up security in anticipation of holiday attacks. Two roadside bombs struck the city earlier in the evening, killing an eight-year-old boy and wounding 27 other people.

The restaurant bombing was the second attack in as many days in the Karada district, a bustling shopping area. A roadside bomb placed in a narrow median strip detonated as a US convoy passed on Tuesday, killing an Iraqi man.

"Karada is an important place. People from many parts of Baghdad come there during the day, to shop and eat," Brigadier Ali al-Yasiri, who commands Iraqi police in the Karada area, said at the scene of last night's attack.

The area is also home to many of Baghdad's minority Christians, but Yasiri said he did not believe they are being targeted. Of about 35 people in the restaurant, most were Christian but some were Muslim, he said.

"People who carry out such attacks don't discriminate. They want to target the entire city, to spread chaos," he said. "There were people inside who wanted to hold a New Year's party, and these guys, as usual, did not want peaceful things like that going on."

Yasiri said it was unclear whether the car had been parked in front of the restaurant or was driven up to it immediately before the blast. He said there did not appear to be anyone in the car when it blew up.

The restaurant had advertised a New Year's party with music and belly dancing, the Associated Press reported. Waiters said the people dancing were customers.

Jabber, the injured waiter, said he had been afraid of a New Year's attack. He said he thought the restaurant was targeted "because there were three foreigners inside and foreigners usually come here."

Three Los Angeles Times reporters working in Baghdad were injured in the blast, the newspaper's Baghdad office manager said: Chris Kraul, who recently headed the newspaper's Mexico City bureau; Ann Simmons, the former bureau chief in Nairobi; and Tracy Wilkinson, a Polk award winner and the paper's Rome bureau chief.

The Times said four Iraqi staffers were also among the injured. Kraul and Wilkinson are US citizens. Simmons is British.

The three were taken to a military hospital with injuries that were not believed to be life-threatening.

Restaurant workers, customers, and members of a family eating dinner in a house next door were also injured, witnesses said.

Two roadside bombs exploded earlier in the evening in other parts of Baghdad. The first exploded as a US convoy passed, killing the 8-year-old Iraqi boy and wounding 21, including five US soldiers and five members of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, Iraqi police told AP.

The second bomb, hidden in shrubs outside a restaurant, also exploded near a passing US convoy. It injured three US soldiers and three Iraqis.

Brigadier General Martin Dempsey, commander of the First Armored Division, which patrols Baghdad, told reporters earlier yesterday that intelligence had helped US forces foil many attacks planned for Christmas.

In addition to mortar rounds fired at the Sheraton Hotel, there were nine rocket-propelled grenades fired on Christmas around the city, but no major damage, he said.

"We don't have as good intelligence as we did around Christmas, but that's not to say we're devoid of intelligence," he said yesterday.

US troops cordoned off the area around Nabil as they searched the rubble with Iraqi police.

The blast left a waist-deep hole, and twisted corrugated shop gates across the street.

A block away, on a side street darkened by the perennial lack of electricity, Burhan al-Sharaida was drinking a beer on the sidewalk with a friend.

Toasting passersby, Sharaida exclaimed, "This is an Iraqi New Year!"

In other developments according to the Associated Press:

* A South Korean was killed yesterday in a gun battle between Romanian soldiers and Iraqi insurgents near the southern city of Basra, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported. There was no immediate confirmation of the report or whether the victim was a soldier or a civilian.

* A US soldier was killed and a second wounded in the accidental discharge of a weapon Tuesday night in the town of Tanf on the Syrian border, the military said.

* Gunfire erupted yesterday as hundreds marched in protest over fears of Kurdish domination in the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk. Police said two people were killed.

Anne Barnard can be reached at abarnard@globe.com.

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