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At Least 29 Die in Baghdad Blast - 2004-03-17

An explosion in Baghdad ripped through a hotel in the city center Wednesday night, killing at least 29 people and injuring dozens more.

Flames shot into the night sky and smoke billowed over the rubble of a five-story hotel in central Baghdad frequented by foreigners. Smaller buildings on either side of Hotel Jabal Lebanon were also destroyed in the blast.

The hotel is located near the central Firdaus Square where a statue of Saddam Hussein was pulled down after U.S. troops took control of the city nearly a year ago.

It is the first major explosion in the city since a suicide bombing some two weeks ago at a holy Shiite shrine in another Baghdad neighborhood.

Witnesses say the blast left a wide crater in front of the gutted hotel building.

The explosion comes on the same day U.S. and Iraqi forces launched a massive campaign to crack down on anti-coalition insurgents and extremists trying to disrupt Iraq's reconstruction.

Violence has become a daily occurrence in Iraq. Bombs, mortars and targeted killings are usually aimed at coalition troops. Often Iraqi civilians get caught in the crossfire.

In recent weeks, the insurgents appear to have shifted their focus to what the military calls softer targets - foreign civilians and their Iraqi employees.

Iraqis listed security as their number one concern in a survey published earlier this week.