BAGHDAD, IRAQ — BAGHDAD, Iraq - As civic and religious leaders debated whether Iraq is stable enough for elections this spring, U.S. military officials said that a 500-pound bomb - hidden inside a truck disguised as a Red Crescent ambulance - was used in a deadly suicide attack early yesterday at a Baghdad hotel.
The blast at the Shaheen Hotel - frequented by Iraqi government officials and Westerners - killed at least three people, according to U.S. officials. Iraqi police on the scene said four died. Local hospitals reported more than a dozen injuries.
South African government officials said yesterday that one of their citizens was among the dead.
The bomb cast a pall over a previously scheduled "town hall" meeting elsewhere in Baghdad held by the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority to promote and explain its Nov. 15 agreement to turn over sovereignty to a new government this summer.
About 200 Iraqi political leaders, academics and clerics attended the forum, including Dr. Adnan Pachachi, current president of the U.S.-backed Iraqi Governing Council. Similar meetings are being held across the country to encourage Iraq's transition to a democratic society.
"Terrorists must stop targeting innocent civilians," said Governing Council spokesman Hamid Kifaee during the event. "They cannot intimidate the Iraqis."
As has frequently happened in previous attacks, the hotel blast took the heaviest toll on Iraqi civilians.
Abdul Karim was driving past the Shaheen Hotel when he felt an explosion and was thrown from his GMC sport utility vehicle.
"God saved me," he said from his hospital bed, recovering from shrapnel wound in his neck.
A moment later, Karim, who ferries workers to and from a nearby electricity plant, broke down in tears, reflecting on his destroyed car. "What am I going to now?" he asked. "I made my living from that car. What am I going to do?"
Outside Ibn Al-Nafees hospital in Baghdad, a half-dozen women dressed in black veils sobbed quietly as a wounded Iraqi guard - his face badly swollen and bandaged - was transferred to another facility for treatment.
"My nephew. What has happened?" cried one woman, holding the bloodied shirt of his uniform.
As investigators combed the area for clues, coalition officials forged ahead with the much-promoted "town hall" session in which they encouraged an audience of Iraqi leaders - hand-picked by the coalition and the governing council - to debate democratic issues such as federalism and women's rights.
The meeting was closed to the public, in part for security reasons, officials said.
The United States is eager to build support for its plan to transfer authority by June 30 to a new Iraqi assembly selected through a series of caucuses nationwide, saying the country is not ready for direct elections. But leading Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani wants Iraqis to vote for who will represent them in the new legislature.
The United Nations agreed this week to send a team to Iraq to evaluate the feasibility of election before the June 30 deadline.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.
Killed in Iraq
As of yesterday, 519 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations and 2,546 U.S. service members have been wounded. Since May 1, when President Bush declared that major combat operations in Iraq had ended, 381 U.S. soldiers have died.
Army Pfc. Ervin Dervishi, 21, Fort Worth, Texas; died Saturday in Baji, Iraq, when a rocket-propelled grenade hit the vehicle in which he was traveling; assigned to Company B, 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, Fort Hood, Texas.