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In the Middle of the Baghdad Hotel Attacks

Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2010

I live and work near the Hamra Hotel compound, where many foreign journalists live and work. On Monday, my main assignments for the day were positively mundane: first, to get a plumber to fix the burst pipe at the office, and then head over to the oil ministry, where Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell were signing a 20-year deal to develop a supergiant Iraqi oil field. The agreement had been heralded as a cornerstone for the future of an Iraq safe enough for investors to unload tens of billions of dollars, perhaps one that would see Iraq surpass Saudi Arabia in oil production. Many hoped it would underwrite Iraq’s transition from war zone to prosperity. “Chemical Ali” was executed in the morning, another remnant of the bad old Saddam days gone. But very soon Monday brought back the Iraq of the bloody, shrieking past in three consecutive, coordinated blasts on high-profile targets.

As my driver and I left the petroleum announcement and headed back toward the Hamra Hotel, we saw a dusty cloud rising deep in the neighborhood to our right. “Perhaps a mortar into the Green Zone,” he suggested. We tried to find out but the phones were already jammed. We had almost arrived at the rear access road to the Hamra when the second bomb exploded, near the Babylon Hotel. We had driven by it just minutes before, and our car jumped. We sped closer to the rear checkpoint of the Hamra compound, where the security guards were already out in full force and on edge. “This is Iraq,” said one guard to me, shrugging with a smile, as his colleague swept a mirror beneath the car to check for bombs. In 2005, twin car bombs rammed through this same checkpoint, taking out one of the hotel’s two towers. (See pictures of the October 2009 suicide attacks in Baghdad.)

The gunshots started soon after we crossed the rear checkpoint. They sounded like they were behind us, in the same direction as the blast from the Babylon, so we decided to make a fast break for the front entrance of the Hamra — not knowing we were headed toward danger. As we drove up to where we could see the front checkpoint, we arrived at the opening scenes of the third bombing of the day. Hotel guards were in a five-minute standoff they would lose, firing their AK-47s at a gunman on the other side of the checkpoint. My driver slammed on the brakes, put the car into reverse and wove around cars, people and concrete barriers, right up to the entrance of the hotel. We then ran into the lobby, where a handful of workers and guests were standing as the gunfire continued outside. (See how close Iraq came to total chaos in 2006.)

I saw my BlackBerry fly out of my hand as the blast brought down much of the hotel ceiling all around us. Outside, dust was clogging the air, rising from the homes outside the Hamra, private residences that had crumbled into rubble. As the dust swelled we shuffled into the basement. Gunshots continued. I shielded my eyes to see a little girl, maybe 5 years old, bloodied in the face and moaning, being carried down the stairwell to an employee exit from the hotel. It was then I saw my hand covered in blood from the tiniest of cuts from flying glass. Guilt twinged in me. Would the Iraqi survivors see me, a foreigner, one of the presumed American targets, as somehow responsible?

Outside, halfway between the checkpoint and the hotel, a 6-ft. (1.8 m) deep crater smoldered. It could have been worse. According to one of the hotel’s security officials, the driver of the suicide vehicle was shot before he could reach the front of the Hamra. The white minibus was apparently detonated remotely, an insurgent fail-safe that adds credence to the fears that the most recent of the coordinated car-bomb attackers are showing increasing sophistication. As the crowd of witnesses and Iraqi rescue workers grew, Iraqi police attempted to interdict the journalists. “Let them take pictures,” a woman in a black abaya, dusty with debris, yelled at the cops. “Let the world see what is happening.”

The blasts occurred amid rancorous and sectarian political debate in Iraq. The predominantly Shi’ite government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had somehow managed to ban many important Sunni politicians from running in parliamentary elections scheduled for March 7. This comes just as the large Sunni minority — the base for much of the radical resistance to the government — had decided it wanted to participate in the vote, having been shut out of political power by boycotting the last major election. Now, nearly two score people were dead and U.S. Apache helicopters were patrolling the air in the aftermath of another coordinated attack on major targets in the capital.

My home and office, near the site of the third and final blast on Monday, is now a refuge for the Hamra’s foreign journalists from five continents. We are quickly assuring our families we are safe as we check in on our staff, call sources for more details, trying to meet deadlines. One colleague is doing his best to calm his driver whose brother is missing. Another is showing the shrapnel from what is likely a piece of the exploded minibus. It crashed through his window on the eighth floor of the Hamra Hotel. In my mind I walk back through the day and I’m gripped by the scent of oranges, which were splattered around the bomb site, small spheres of color in contrast to the blackened rubble. It kept cutting through the smells of charred vehicles and humans as I watched the aftermath, waiting in vain to speak to a mother whose daughter was rushed to the hospital. It would waft toward me on the breeze of what could have been a normal January afternoon. The orange smell was tart, from fruit not yet ripe, shaken early from the trees by the blast and scattered whole, split and squashed amidst the debris. and its also non-profit sister websites,,,,, and are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

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