BAGHDAD, Iraq — A powerful explosion, apparently from a car bomb, went off in the Karrada district of central Baghdad Wednesday, virtually destroying the Mount Lebanon Hotel and damaging a number of houses and offices nearby.
Iraqi police sources said there were “many dead, many injured.”
A coalition military official said he believed the blast was caused by a car bomb.
“It’s a scene from hell here,” CNN Baghdad Bureau Chief Jane Arraf said.
“People are crying and screaming and debris is everywhere,” Arraf said.
The powerful blast left a deep crater about the width of the street and sent shattered glass flying for several blocks, she said.
Bystanders worked frantically to pull victims from the rubble, digging with their bare hands as fires raged in the background.
Iraqi police and coalition soldiers cordoned off the area. U.S. soldiers from the nearby “Green Zone” attempted to go into the area to rescue victims but were driven back by angry Iraqis.
U.S. soldiers were shouting to people to get back, because of concerns that there could be additional explosives.
The explosion occurred near Firdos Square, where the large statue of Saddam Hussein was pulled down in early April.
The attack comes as coalition forces began Operation Iron Promise, a citywide sweep for insurgents almost one year after the war started.
The location, in a busy area of the city, has been the scene of attacks in the past.
There were preliminary reports that a hotel was struck. TV footage showed raging fire, a destroyed chunk of a building, and wounded people in the rubble being carried away.
The blast follows a series of recent attacks.
Three U.S. soldiers and two Iraqi children were wounded Wednesday by an improvised explosive device in south-central Baghdad, a military source told CNN.
The children and a soldier were evacuated to combat hospital, where they were treated for shrapnel injuries. Two other soldiers have returned to duty.
A mortar attack Tuesday night killed a child and wounded eight, believed to have been playing in Baghdad’s Adhamiya neighborhood, an Iraqi official said Wednesday.
Deputy Interior Minister Gen. Ahmed Kadhim said the mortar hit a building that had been a Baath party office, and is now used by an unidentified political party.
Also Tuesday, a rocket struck the grounds of a secondary school in Baghdad’s Al-Karkh region, killing one person and wounding four, Iraqi police said.
Baghdad University students Wednesday attended the funeral of the assistant dean of the school of engineering. They told CNN’s Jane Arraf that Marwan al-Hiti was shot and killed near his home Tuesday night.
A 3rd Armored Cavalry soldier died Wednesday when he was traveling in a convoy in Iraq en route to Kuwait for redeployment, U.S. Central Command said.
The soldier was injured badly when a passing vehicle struck his tank and was evacuated to a combat support hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival.
Iraqi leaders seek U.N. advisers
Rescuers search through rubble after explosion in central Baghdad.
Iraqi leaders have reached an understanding with the United Nations, asking for advisers to help them put together an interim government before the June 30 political handover, a British diplomat said Wednesday.
British Ambassador to the U.N. Emyr Jones Parry said the Iraqi Governing Council is planning to bring back U.N. experts to help devise the government that will get power in a handover.
A U.N. electoral team recently was in Iraq to explore the feasibility of direct elections for a transitional assembly before the June deadline that would choose a government to be in charge at the time of the handover.
The team concluded that such elections were not logistically possible and the council started thinking about the shape of a caretaker government for the sovereignty period. One idea is expanding the 25-member council and extending its authority through the year.
The United Nations removed its international staff from Iraq after its Baghdad headquarters was attacked in August.