BAGHDAD, Iraq – Homicide bombers killed 74 worshippers at two Shiite mosques near the Iranian border Friday, while a pair of car bombs targeting a Baghdad hotel housing Western journalists killed eight Iraqis.
The homicide attackers targeted the Sheik Murad mosque and the Khanaqin Grand Mosque in Khanaqin, 90 miles northeast of Baghdad, as dozens of people were attending Friday prayers, police said. The police command said 74 people were killed and 75 wounded in the largely Kurdish town.
At sunset, dozens of people were still searching the rubble of the three-story Khanaqin Grand Mosque. As the men dug, 12-year-old Sarkhel Akram collected copies of the Quran, the Muslim holy book, then she kissed them and put them away.
The suicide attacker walked into the mosque and detonated his explosives in the middle of a group of people, said Ali Abdullah.
Omar Saleh, 73, said from his bed at Kalar hospital that he was bowing in prayer when the bomb exploded.
"The roof fell on us and the place was filled with dead bodies," he said.
Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division assisted Iraqi security forces in Khanaqin, sending medical specialists and supplies.
Hafez Abdul-Aziz, an official with the Iraqi Islamic Party in Diyala, condemned "the cowardly terrorists' act" and said that his party members, most of whom are Sunni, are ready to donate blood for the victims in Khanaqin.
Including Friday's attacks in Khanaqin and Baghdad, suicide bombings in Iraq have killed at least 1,617 Iraqis and wounded at least 3,429 since April 28, 2005, when the country's first elected government took power, according to an Associated Press count.
Of those, suicide-driven vehicle bombs killed at least 1,115 and wounded at least 2,591, and suicide bombers on foot killed at least 502 and wounded at least 888. The totals do not include casualties of roadside bombs.
The blasts near the Hamra Hotel in Baghdad knocked down protective concrete walls and blew out windows but caused no structural damage. Several nearby homes were destroyed, and firefighters and U.S. troops joined neighbors to dig through the debris to pull out victims.
Gunfire followed the blasts, which came less than a minute apart and echoed throughout downtown Baghdad. They sent a mushroom cloud hundreds of feet into the air.
"What we have here appears to be two suicide car bombs (that) attempted to breach the security wall in the vicinity of the hotel complex, and I think the target was the Hamra Hotel," U.S. Brig. Gen. Karl Horst told reporters at the scene.
News organizations housed at the Hamra include NBC News and The Boston Globe.
The attack was the first against a hotel housing international journalists since the Oct. 24 triple vehicle bomb attack against the Palestine Hotel, where The Associated Press, Fox News and other organizations live and work.
In that attack, which killed 17 Iraqis, one of vehicles blew a hole in a concrete wall, opening the way for a cement truck packed with explosives to penetrate the compound. The truck detonated only a few feet into the compound after U.S. troops raked the vehicle with small arms fire and the driver got stuck in debris. A third vehicle went off a short distance away, perhaps as a diversion.
Mike Boettcher of NBC News, who was in the Hamra when Friday's bomb exploded, said on the "Today" show that a white van drove up to the blast walls that protect the hotel, detonated at 8:12 a.m., and "we were blown out of our beds."
He said that according to the U.S. Army, that bomb was meant to open the way for a second, bigger truck to drive in with even more explosives.
"Instead, the gap he made on the first bomb was too small, and it exploded outside the wall and it caused great destruction in the neighborhood right outside our wall," Boettcher said.
He said his staff had been trained to stay down after an initial blast in case there was a second bomb — and that turned out to be the case.
"We got down on the floor and crawled, and then the second bomb hit, and we were blown back," Boettcher said.
"To be in the middle of this — not a pleasant experience, but I feel a lot more sorry for those people who were killed just outside our compound, who didn't have that blast wall to protect them. That saved our lives," he said.
Sa'ad al-Izzi, an Iraqi journalist with the Globe, also was inside the hotel.
"They were trying to penetrate by displacing the blast barriers behind the hotel and then get to the hotel," he said. "I woke up to a huge explosion which broke all the glass and displaced all the window and doors frames."
At first, the target appeared to be an Interior Ministry building where U.S. troops on Sunday found about 170 detainees, some of whom appeared to have been tortured.
Maj. Gen. Hussein Kamal, the deputy interior minister, said initial reports indicated that "the first car bomber was trying to pave the way for the second one ... to get in and hit the Hamra Hotel, not the Interior Ministry."
Also Friday, insurgents attacked U.S. and Iraqi troops in western Iraq, setting off gunbattles that killed 32 insurgents, a U.S. military statement said.
One Marine and an Iraqi soldier suffered minor injuries during the attack, the U.S. forces said. Most of the fighting took place around the a mosque in the center of the town.
"Marines reported that they received sustained small arms fire originating from the mosque," the statement said. "A nearby U.S. Army outpost also reported receiving enemy fire from the area surrounding the mosque."
The U.S. forces estimated that at least 50 insurgents took part in the coordinated attack, which quickly dissipated when the Iraqi and U.S. forces returned fire, the military said. Iraqi troops entered the mosque and found spent ammunition.
Also Friday, the top U.N. human rights official called for an international investigation into the conditions of detainees in Iraq following the alleged abuse of those found at the Interior Ministry building.
"In light of the apparently systemic nature and magnitude of that problem, and the importance of public confidence in any inquiry, I urge authorities to consider calling for an international inquiry," said Louise Arbour, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Prominent Sunni Arabs have complained for months about abuse by Interior Ministry forces, whom they claim have been infiltrated by Shiite militias. The Sunnis called for an international investigation after the Jadriyah detainees were found.
The government denies the militia allegations.
"I reject torture and I will punish those who perform torture," said Interior Minister Bayn Jabr, a Shiite. "No one was beheaded, no one was killed."
He also said "those who are supporting terrorism are making the exaggerations" about torture and that only seven detainees showed signs of abuse.
The U.S. Embassy said Thursday that Iraqi authorities had given assurances that they will investigate the conditions of detainees found Sunday night and that the abuse of prisoners "will not be tolerated by either the Iraqi government" or U.S.-led forces anywhere in the country.
U.S. officials have refused to say how many detainees showed signs of torture and whether most were Sunnis, pending completion of an Iraqi investigation.
In another setback for sectarian reconciliation, the leader of Iraq's largest Shiite political party will not attend an Arab League meeting this weekend in Egypt, his spokesman said Friday. The 22-member Arab League has invited some 100 prominent Iraqis for the preliminary meeting ahead of a planned reconciliation conference, probably to be held early next year in Iraq.
The head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, won't attend, his party said. The delegation will be headed by Sheik Humam Hammoudi, said the group's spokesman, Haitham al-Husseini.