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Rockets on donkeys hit major Baghdad sites

By P. MITCHELL PROTHERO   |   Nov. 21, 2003 at 11:13 AM   |   Comments

BAGHDAD, Nov. 21 (UPI) -- Rockets fired from donkey-drawn carts struck two major hotels used by foreign journalists and the Iraqi Ministry of Oil Friday in a barrage that shook downtown Baghdad.

The Palestine and Sheraton Hotels, which are adjacent, were hit by a series of rockets fired by one unmanned donkey-drawn cart in the central Saydoon neighborhood of Baghdad at about 7:15 a.m. At about the same time, another series of rockets - also fired from an unmanned cart - hit the Oil Ministry, igniting a fire on the fifth floor of the sprawling office building, which was unoccupied at the time.

The Palestine and Sheraton hotels, which were once run by international companies but are now known to be owned by local companies, served as media headquarters during and immediately after the U.S.-led war to depose Saddam Hussein. Both continue to house substantial numbers of media organizations, including the BBC, CNN and Fox News.

The hotels also house numerous civilian contractors working with the U.S.-led occupation.

A U.S. Army Spokesman condemned the attack, which came on the last Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

"Once again the peace of Ramadan was shattered by enemy forces," said Col. Peter Mansoor, of the 1st Armored Division.

Another military source confirmed that two other donkey-powered missile carts were found wandering in the vicinity of the Italian Embassy, in a nearby neighborhood. Neither of those donkeys had fired its deadly load.

There is one confirmed serious casualty from the Palestine Hotel, where witnesses said a seriously wounded civilian was removed from the building by U.S. troops after the attack.

Holes - presumably from rockets - could be seen on the eastern side of the Palestine's eighth, 13th, 15th and 16th floors. Several holes could be seen at about the 16th floor of the Sheraton. Huge shards of broken glass fell into its open lobby area, which was mostly empty at the time.

Mansoor said eight rockets were fired at the Oil Ministry building and two detonated.

"The enemy used homemade rocket launchers on carts attached to donkeys," Mansoor told reporters. "The rockets were set to a timer and hidden under produce. We have some leads in both cases in our efforts to find who was behind these attacks."

About 250 meters away from the hotel, an agitated donkey tethered to a toppled cart could be seen in the custody of U.S. troops. According to the U.S. military and local witnesses, the donkey - acting without an accomplice - dragged the lettuce cart down the main street outside the hotel while a timer operated the rockets.

Apparently upon the beginning of the barrage, the donkey broke discipline and panicked, toppling the cart. At that point, the rockets disconnected from the timer, leaving them strewn around the street. Tethered to the now toppled cart, the donkey was unable to escape before the arrival of U.S. troops.

"The donkey is doing just fine," Mansoor told United Press International.

Suggestions that the donkey be released to see whether he would walk home - possibly leading to the mastermind behind the attacks - went unheeded by U.S. military at the scene.

Because of their high profile in the media, the Palestine-Sheraton complex has been considered a likely target of terrorist and resistance attacks. Intelligence reports given to security personnel working for international news networks have indicated that several groups have planned attacks on the facility, which remains one of the most heavily guarded sites in Iraq.

Located on the eastern bank of the Tigris River, the two buildings are among the tallest in Baghdad and are surrounded by 14-foot concrete walls and concertina wire added by private security firms. Although the facilities are well protected from the possibility of car or truck bombs because of the barricades, security consultants for one major television network, which refuses to be based at those hotels for security reasons, said a rocket attack had been predicted.

"It was a matter of time," said one British security expert. "Particularly if (terrorists) are willing to conduct donkey-dom operations."

© 2003 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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