Blast Destroys U.N. Baghdad Offices; Kills Top UN Envoy

The United Nations headquarters in Baghdad has been destroyed by a truck bomb killing 20 people in one of the deadliest attacks ever directed at the United Nations.

Among the dead was Sergio Vieira de Mello, the top UN official in Baghdad. Dozens were also wounded.

The explosion happened at about 4:30 in the afternoon yesterday while hundreds of UN officials, workers and journalists were inside the converted hotel. A cement truck loaded with explosives is believed to have crashed into the building.

The attack came less than two weeks after a car bomb destroyed the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad killing 17.

No group took responsibility for the attacks. Paul Bremer, the who is overseeing the US. Occupation accused Syria of permitting militants into Iraq.

US and UN officials said de Mello may have been the target of the attack since the bomb struck so close to his office.

Reports: Security Lax at UN HQ

The Guardian of London reports "security at the building was about as lax as it was possible to get in postwar Baghdad." Cars were allowed to pull up next to the compound. There were no tanks or armored vehicles outside. The headquarters had no protective berms and there was no massive U.S. military presence.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the UN officials had asked the U.S.-led coalition last week to expand its security realm to include foreign embassies and offices of non-government agencies in Iraq. But the U.S. said no.

The Los Angeles Times reported the U.N. may have been attacked because de Mello had recently expressed support for U.S. policy and the new Iraqi Governing Council.

Brazilian Diplomat Mourned

Vieira de Mello, the 55-year-old Brazilian diplomat had served in the United Nation since 1969 in some of the world’s most sensitive areas including East Timor, Yugoslavia, Cambodia and Bangladesh.

Bernard Kouchner, co-founder of Doctors Without Borders, said of de Mello "Sergio is dead and for us he died as an activist, not as an international bureaucrat. He was a human rights and peace activist, a just man who fought against all forms of extremism." In Brazil President Lula declared three days of national mourning in honor of de Mello.

Among the other dead was American Rick Hooper, who worked in the department of political affairs and Canadian Chris Klein-Beckman, who served as program coordinator for UNICEF.

Next door to the UN headquarters is Baghdad’s spinal cord hospital which also suffered damage from the blast. The hospital had to be evacuated after the ceiling fell in. At least eight patients, many of whom already couldn’t walk, were injured.

Today UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said the will stay in Iraq despite yesterday’s "senseless" attack.

Palestinian suicide bomber kills 20 on Jerusalem Bus

In other news from the Middle East, at least 20 people died in Israel last night when a Palestinian suicide bomber blew up a bus in West Jerusalem. More than 100 people were injured. The New York Times described it as one of the deadliest attacks since the second intifada began three years ago. The bombing marks the most serious blow to the six-week-old ceasefire.

The bus was carrying religious Jews who had been visiting the holy site of the Wailing Wall.

After the bombing, Israel shut the Palestinian border, froze peace negotiations and canceled plans to withdraw troops from four West Bank cities.

There were reports that both Islamic Jihad and Hamas took responsibility for the attack.

In a phone call to the Associated Press, a representative of Islamic Jihad warned that Israel would face retribution "like an earthquake" because Israel had killed one of its top commanders, Ahmed Sidr last Thursday.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is meeting with advisors today to discuss Israel’s response.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas condemned the attack and announced he had cut off talks with Islamic Jihad and Hamas.

Ashcroft Defends Patriot Act & Claims He Is Defending Liberty

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft yesterday launched a two-week PR campaign to defend the controversial Patriot Act which has come under intense criticism. In a speech yesterday at the American Enterprise Institute, Ashcroft presented himself as a preserver of liberty and freedom in the United States. He spoke before a backdrop that read "Preserving Life and Liberty." He quoted the Gettysberg address. He announced the launching of a new website that prominently quotes the Declaration of Independence. And he ended his speech by saying "as long as there is an America, liberty must not, will not, shall not perish from the earth."

Meanwhile critics continued to attack Ashcroft and the Patriot Act.

Laura Murphy of the ACLU said, "The problem is this government has decided to allow the FBI to search our homes without telling us, to seize our library records even when it’s not remotely related to criminal activity.

Georgetown Law Professor David Cole said of Ashcroft’s tour "The fact that they need to do this shows how much public opinion has shifted on this issue."

But the Justice Department dismissed the criticism.

Department spokeswoman Barbara Comstock, while wearing a t-shirt that read "Freedom" said the criticism is coming from "small vocal minority" who are spreading misinformation.

Last month the House voted 309 to 118 to scale back portions of the Patriot Act. More than 150 towns and cities have passed resolutions condemning the Patriot Act.

FirstEnergy Officials Big Backers of Bush

The Washington Post reports that two of the top executives at the Ohio-based utility firm FirstEnergy are major financial supporters of President Bush. Investigators are focusing on FirstEnergy as the possible source of last week’s blackout. Campaign records show that the company’s chairman and chief executive Peter Burg co-hosted at $600,000 fundraiser for Bush six weeks ago. The company’s president and chief operating office Anthony Alexander was designated a "Pioneer" by Bush because he raised over $100,000 for his election. All together, the Center for Responsive Politics found energy and natural resource interests gave Bush $3.6 million during his 2000 campaign.

U.S. Backs Colombian Anti-Drug Flights

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said yesterday the U.S. would again support Columbia policy shooting down planes suspected of carrying drugs.

The U.S. has opposed the air patrols since 2001 when a plane carrying an American missionary and her baby was shot down in Peru after it was mistaken to be the plane of a drug runner.

Rumsfeld made the announcement during a one-day visit to Colombia

Gray Davis Accuses GOP of “Right-wing Power Grab”

In California, Gov. Gray Davis last night accused Republicans of orchestrating a "right-wing power grab" by trying to "steal elections." In a televised address, Davis admitted he made mistakes handling the state’s energy and budget crisis but asked voters to rejected the Republican-backed vote to recall him from office.

S.D. Rep. Janklow Could Face Charges in Auto Killing

This news from South Dakota, Republican Congressman William Janklow may face criminal charges after being involved in a fatal car accident over the weekend. A state prosecutor said yesterday Janklow had likely run a stop light before crashing into a motorcyclist.

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