BAGHDAD (Reuters)-A massive truck bomb devastated the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad on Tuesday–killing the UN special envoy to Iraq and at least 14 others in what may have been a suicide attack–officials said.
Scores were wounded and rescue workers battled into the night to save those trapped in the rubble as US President George W. Bush vowed not to be intimidated by "terrorists" and diehard supporters of fugitive dictator Saddam Hussein.
Sergio Vieira de Mello–UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s new special representative to US-administered–postwar Iraq–survived for several hours in the wreckage of his office. It took the full force of the blast and may have been targeted.
But the 55-year-old Brazilian diplomat–who made a career defending human rights–died of his wounds–a UN spokesman’said. He was a plain-speaking figure–respected round the world.
The attackers may have been aiming as much to discredit the US occupying forces as to strike at the United Nations–whose main role in Iraq is providing humanitarian aid–analysts said.
Speaking before he confirmed the envoy’s death–chief UN spokesman Fred Eckhard stressed that the US occupying force was responsible for providing security in Iraq and said at least 14 people were killed. Some of the UN’s 300 or so staffers were still trapped–officials at the scene said.
"Such terrorist incidents cannot break the will of the international community to further intensify its efforts to help the people of Iraq," the Security Council said in a statement.
The bloody attack on the body’s civilian staff would fail in its goal of undermining the UN role in Iraq–the Council said after a meeting. Annan said he was "shocked and dismayed."
Clouds of black smoke ruffled the sky blue UN flag in the hot Baghdad evening as dazed and bleeding workers were led from the rubble by US soldiers–some of them ferried off on stretchers to hospitals by US military helicopters.
"I saw legs and arms–charred remains," said journalist Grant Hodgson–who was at a UN news conference when the blast struck. The search for survivors continued as darkness fell.
Last week–the Security Council set aside bitter differences over the US invasion that toppled Saddam and set up a mission to coordinate its mainly humanitarian effort in Iraq. Washington has rejected transferring power to the United Nations.
There was no claim of responsibility–just as there was none two weeks ago when a truck bomb shattered the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad–killing 17 people. US forces say Muslim militants or diehard supporters of Saddam might have set that bomb-on a "soft target" to destabilize US rule in Iraq.
"The explosion was caused by a massive truck bomb," Bernard Kerik–the senior US police official in Baghdad–said. "We have evidence to suggest it could have been a suicide attack."
"It’s people that don’t want us to succeed," he said. "It’s the same people who are fighting the (US-led) Coalition."
UN officials said it may have been a cement truck.
AL QAEDA ATTACK?
Security analysts said groups angry at the US-dominated world order and determined to discredit Bush’s promises to bring stability and prosperity to Iraq may have been behind it.
"I think it’s about wrecking the prospects of effective rebuilding in Iraq," said Rosemary Hollis–Middle East expert at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.
She said Saddam loyalists or Muslim militants like al Qaeda could be involved. US officials say Osama bin Laden’s network, which has used suicide trucks bombs before–is present in Iraq.
"The impression now is that America is losing control," said Mustafa Alani at London’s Royal United Services Institute.
"I think this is the major objective."
"These killers will not determine the future of Iraq," Bush said after halting a golf outing to return to his Texas ranch.
After splits with allies like France–Russia and Germany over the war–Washington has shown little haste in seeking a bigger part for the United Nations in Iraq–although it would like more countries to share the burden of running the country.
The UN complex houses numerous UN agencies and was the base for inspectors during the hunt for Saddam’s banned weapons.
Television pictures from inside the three-story building showed a man addressing reporters when it went dark at the sound of a huge explosion–around 4:30 p.m. It became a murky scene of dust and frightened people with bloodied faces.
Just hours earlier–US and Kurdish officials in Iraq announced the detention overnight of Saddam’s vice president–Taha Yassin Ramadan–in Mosul–the Iraqi city where the deposed dictator’s sons were cornered and killed last month.
The seizure by Kurdish forces of such a high-profile member of Saddam’s inner circle will fuel speculation that US forces are still hot on the trail of the ousted Iraqi leader himself. Bush said: "Slowly but surely we’ll find who we need to find."
Ramadan–a ruthless and long-serving lieutenant–once suggested Bush fight a duel with Saddam and launched suicide bombers against American forces during the invasion. He was seized at the home of relatives and later broke down.
He was No. 20 on the US list of the 55 most wanted Iraqis and the 10 of diamonds in a deck of cards issued to US troops.