BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Two pro-Iranian terrorists, guns blazing, drove a truck-bomb through a hail of bullets to the U.S. Embassy Thursday and set off a huge explosion that killed 23 people, including two American servicemen, and dug a crater 9 feet deep.
Police set the overall toll at 23 dead and 71 injured inthe attack - the third against an American installation in Beirut in 17 months. At least 20 other people were reported missing, rescue officials said. State-run Beirut radio said the death toll could rise to 40 as rescuers searched through the rubble.
U.S. Ambassador Reginald Bartholomew, 48, was among 25 Americans injured. He was pinned under rubble in his 4th floor office and extricated by British Ambassador David Miers, who was visiting him, witnesses said. Bartholomew's injuries were described as minor.
The Pentagon said the two servicemen killed were Army Chief Warrant Officer Kenneth W. Welch, 33, of Grand Rapids, Mich., and Petty Officer 1st Class Michael Ray Wagner, 30, of Zebulon, N.C.. They were both assigned to the embassy's defense attache's office.
President Reagan was awakened at 5:50 a.m. and informed of the attack. He called the bombing a 'painful reminder' of a worldwide terrorist network.
The Islamic Jihad organization, a pro-Iranian underground movement bent on pushing 'the last American out of Lebanon,' claimed responsibility for the blast in a telephone call to a Western news agency.
'We fulfill our promise,' the caller said. 'Not a single American will stay on Lebanese soil.'
Two weeks ago, a person identifying himself as a spokesman for the Islamic Jihad warned of an attack on a U.S. installation.
Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, in Texas for a speech, branded the attack 'cowardly, outrageous' and warned there are always 'options for retaliation' against the pro-Iranian terrorist group.
The estimated 330 pounds of TNT in the truck detonated just 20 feet short of the six-story embassy building, near a crowd that gathered at the visa section. It ripped off the building's facade and sent steel hurtling through the air. The embassy was damaged but none of its walls collapsed.
A State Department official said the dead included four or five Lebanese employees of the embassy.
Three other American servicemen were wounded and hospitalized but their injuries were not life-threatening, the Pentagon said.
'There were bodies scattered round the building, some limbless and some headless,' said a resident who arrived minutes after the blast.'I just thank God he didn't turn into the building but blew it up outside.'
A police source said: 'Most of the casualties are Lebanese - gathered outside the embassy's visa section.'
'I just heard gunshots and then the explosion,' said an American architect who was working on the ground floor of the embassy but declined to be identified. 'I don't know what happened, I've just got wounds in my ear and hand.'
State Department spokesman John Hughes said U.S. diplomatic posts around the world were put on heightened alert as a result of the attack, which he said was linked to a U.S. veto in the U.N. Security Council of a resolution on Israel's continued occupation of southern Lebanon.
Investigations showed the two men drove up a tree-lined road in the suburb of Awkar, 6 miles from Beirut's city center, and stopped at a series of waist-high concrete blocks on the outer perimeter of the grounds, security sources said.
The 'dragon's teeth,' as the blocks are called, were manned by armed former members of a Christian militia, who have guarded the building since it opened Aug. 2. The white pickup truck was disguised as a diplomatic vehicle with false number plates.
'They argued with the local guards and then fired at them and drove around the teeth,' an embassy source said. 'They then drove on and were fired at by U.S. Marine guards, a British bodyguard of the ambassador's and the local guards.'
The truck accelerated along the straight 100-yard road and its load of TNT exploded as it passed in front of the stone building, gouging out a crater 9-feet deep and 24-feet wide.
Lebanese military officials said the driver was shot and killed and the other man was presumed to have died in the attack.
'The bomber apparently more or less vaporized,' a security officer said. 'We have found not trace of him and only bits of the engine of the truck we were told he was in. The only thing we have is the crater.'
Embassy vehicles were flung along the road by the force of the explosion, which sent girders tumbling out of the building and on to the road, damaged dozens of cars and shattered hundreds of windows.
Thursday's explosion at the new embassy, which opened just seven weeks ago, was the third attack on a major U.S. installation in the Lebanese capital since April 1983 and Islamic Jihad has claimed responsibility for all three.
The Moslem group claims allegiance to Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. It has boasted that it masterminded the April 1983 bombing that killed 63 people at the U.S. Embassy in west Beirut and a truck-bomb attack that killed 241 Americans at a Marine headquarters at Beirut International Airport last October.
It was those blasts that prompted U.S. officials to move the U.S. diplomatic mission from Moslem west Beirut to its new location in the Christian east Beirut suburb of Awkar. A skeleton staff remains at the west Beirut facility.