AMMAN, Jordan – Abu Musab al-Zarqawi
As protesters in Jordan and elsewhere in the Arab world denounced the Jordanian-born leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, security forces snared a group of Iraqis for questioning and officials said one of the bombers spoke Iraqi-accented Arabic before he exploded his suicide belt in the Grand Hyatt Hotel.
The main demonstration in Amman lasted for more than an hour. But honking vehicles, decorated with Jordanian flags and posters of King Abdullah II, cruised Amman's streets until late in the night, as passengers chanted "Death to al-Zarqawi, the villain and the traitor!" and anti-terrorism slogans.
About 50 people, including Jordanian children holding tiny flags, placed candles on a makeshift sand memorial in the driveway of the Hyatt.
King Abdullah II, a strong U.S. ally, vowed in a nationally televised address to "pursue those criminals and those behind them, and we will get to them wherever they are."
Two Americans were killed and four wounded in the bombings Wednesday evening at the Hyatt, the Radisson SAS and the Days Inn, State Department spokesman Noel Clay said. Two of the wounded were hospitalized.
Significantly, the victims also included some two dozen Palestinians with roots in the West Bank. Among them were the West Bank's intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Bashir Nafeh, a diplomat and a prominent banker. Many Jordanians and Palestinians have supported the Iraqi insurgency, but the hotel bombings could tip Arab sentiment against al-Zarqawi.
In the West Bank village of Silet al-Thaher, members of the Akhras family mourned 13 of their relatives killed during a wedding party at the Radisson.
"Oh my God, oh my God. Is it possible that Arabs are killing Arabs, Muslims killing Muslims? For what did they do that?" screamed 35-year-old Najah Akhras, who lost two nieces in the attack. Similar thoughts were heard over and over throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Other members of the Akhras family were wounded, including two U.S. citizens who live in the Caribbean island of St. Thomas, said Nader Akhras of Arlington, Texas.
Al Qaeda in Iraq, which appears to be expanding its operations outside of Iraq, said the bombings put the United States on notice that the "backyard camp for the Crusader army is now in the range of fire of the holy warriors."
But later Thursday, in an apparent response to the protests, al-Zarqawi's group took the rare step of trying "to explain for Muslims part of the reason the holy warriors targeted these dens."
"Let all know that we have struck only after becoming confident that they are centers for launching war on Islam and supporting the Crusaders' presence in Iraq and the Arab peninsula and the presence of the Jews on the land of Palestine," Al Qaeda in Iraq said in an Internet statement, the authenticity of which could not be immediately verified.
Al-Zarqawi's group has claimed responsibility for previous attacks in Jordan, including the 2002 assassination of U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley. Jordan, a moderate Arab nation, has fought a long-running battle against Islamic extremists opposed to its 1994 peace deal with Israel.
In addition to the two Americans, the dead included 33 Jordanians, many with families ties to the Palestinian West Bank; six Iraqis; two Bahrainis; at least two Chinese; one Indonesian; and one Saudi. The others had not yet been identified. Officials said the death toll of 59 — which includes the three attackers — could rise because several of the 100 or so wounded victims were seriously hurt.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani condemned the Amman attacks and said they put Jordan on notice against harboring militants.
"Unfortunately there are still some groups in Jordan supporting terrorist criminals, describing them as the resistance, and they are deceived by their claims," Talabani said in Rome.
Two daughters of ousted leader Saddam Hussein now live in Jordan, as do many other wealthy and formerly powerful Iraqis.
"I hope that these attacks will wake up the `Jordanian street' to end their sympathy with Saddam's remnants ... who exploit the freedom in this country to have a safe shelter to plot their criminal acts against Iraqis," Iraqi government spokesman Laith Kubba said.
He also said Iraqis may have had a hand in the attacks.
"The Al Qaeda organization has become as a plague that affected Iraq and is now transmitted by the same rats to other countries. A lot of Iraqis, especially former intelligence and army officers, joined this criminal cell," Kubba said.
One of the nearly simultaneous blasts tore through a banquet hall at the Radisson, where 300 guests were celebrating the wedding of the Jordanian-Palestinian couple.
"While I was shooting the pictures, all of sudden I saw a huge explosion, like the explosions we see on television, and people started screaming and pushing their way out of the hall," said wedding cameraman Osaka Rushed al-Saleh, 27. He spoke from his hospital bed, where he was recovering from facial and shoulder injuries.
President Bush said the attackers defiled Islam and the United States would help bring those responsible to justice.
"The killings should remind all of us that there is an enemy in this world that is willing to kill innocent people, willing to bomb a wedding celebration in order to advance their cause," Bush said during a meeting with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
A senior Jordanian security official linked the bombings to Iraq, Jordan's war-ravaged eastern neighbor, saying the Hyatt bomber spoke with an Iraqi accent and that authorities have detained several other Iraqis.
"Indications and initial reports point to Iraqi involvement but we cannot be certain," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was unauthorized to speak to the media.
Security staff patrolling the Hyatt stopped the middle-aged terrorist as he was wandering the lobby. He spoke briefly to the guards before detonating the explosives strapped underneath his Western-style suit, the official said.
The official said authorities made a number of arrests, including Jordanians, Iraqis and other Arabs.
Al-Zarqawi is believed to have trained at least 100 Iraqi suicide bombers as a special martyrdom corps to continue his group's war inside Iraq and possibly elsewhere in the Middle East.
While Jordanian security authorities have extensive networks tracking local militants, keeping tabs on Iraqis is believed to be much harder, particularly because nearly 1 million Iraqis have taken refuge in the country.
Officials from around the world sent condolences to Jordan and its ruler, Abdullah, who said his nation was targeted because it was committed to "fighting the terrorists who are killing innocents in the name of Islam."
Within hours of the attacks on the loosely guarded hotels, where there were no metal detectors at the entrances, security was intensified throughout the capital. Armed police patrolled outside hotels, set up checkpoints and randomly stopped vehicles to check them. For more than 12 hours, Jordanian authorities locked down their country's borders to prevent culprits possibly slipping out.
"We will bring them out from their holes and bring them to justice," Abdullah said.