Suicide bombers carried out nearly simultaneous attacks on three Western chain hotels here Wednesday night, killing at least 57 people, wounding more than 100 and emphatically ending Jordan's status as an oasis of relative calm in the Middle East.
The blasts struck the Grand Hyatt, Radisson SAS and Days Inn in the Jordanian capital just before 9 p.m., sending clouds of black smoke billowing into the sky and leaving some of the bloodied victims lying on plush-carpeted floors.
At the Radisson, an assailant detonated an explosives belt in the midst of a wedding party in a crowded banquet hall, resulting in extensive casualties, officials said. At the Days Inn, a car bomber was unable to breach the security perimeter outside the hotel before detonating his explosives, Deputy Prime Minister Marwan Muasher told reporters.
Emergency workers rushing to the scenes used bellman's carts to carry the wounded out of the hotels. The flood of victims overwhelmed local hospitals.
A surgeon at Istiqlal Hospital reported "bodies coming left and right." Sixteen corpses were placed in a single room and dozens of the injured were in danger of dying overnight, the surgeon said.
No group claimed immediate responsibility for the bombings, but Western intelligence officials said the multiple, tightly coordinated suicide attacks focusing on relatively soft targets bore the hallmark of the Al Qaeda network. Muasher, in an interview on CNN, said that although it was too early to tell for sure, he believed Al Qaeda-affiliated Jordanian-born militant Abu Musab Zarqawi was "obviously the prime suspect."
Early reports indicated that the majority of the victims Wednesday were Jordanian civilians. The injured included Moustapha Akkad, the internationally famed Syrian-born film director of "The Message" and "Lion of the Desert." Akkad's 30-year-old daughter, Reem, died in one of the blasts.
Madison Conoley, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Amman, said no American citizens were known to have been injured. Associated Press reported that an American at the Hyatt, speaking with a Southern drawl, had said, "My friends are dead." The blast shattered the entrance to the five-star hotel.
Reuters quoted a French U.N. official as saying, "I was eating with friends in the restaurant next to the bar when I saw a huge ball of fire shoot up to the ceiling and then everything went black."
The U.S. Embassy was advising Americans in Amman to take what the spokesman called "common sense" precautions such as "avoiding large crowds and keeping a low profile."
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Israelis staying at the Radisson on Wednesday had been evacuated before the attacks and escorted back home "apparently due to a specific security threat."
Amos N. Guiora, a former senior Israeli counter-terrorism official, said in a phone interview with The Times that sources in Israel had also told him about the pre-attack evacuations.
"It means there was excellent intelligence that this thing was going to happen," said Guiora, a former leader of the Israel Defense Forces who now heads the Institute for Global Security Law and Policy at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. "The question that needs to be answered is why weren't the Jordanians working at the hotel similarly removed?"
Jordanian security forces were placed on high alert, deploying throughout the capital around hotels, embassies and malls. The Jordanian government sealed off the borders and announced that all government and public offices would be closed in mourning today.
Jordan's King Abdullah II condemned the attacks, calling them criminal acts committed by "a misled and misleading group."
In Washington, President Bush said the bombings "again demonstrated the terrible cruelty of the terrorists and the great toll they take on civilized society." Bush, in a statement, pledged full support and assistance for the Jordanian government, which he called "a key ally in the war on terror."
Jordan has long enjoyed a reputation as a safe zone sandwiched between its violent, unstable neighbors -- Israel and the Palestinian territories to the west and Iraq to the east. Nestled amid the tumult, Jordan looks at first like a sleepy strip of desert and rugged mountains, tourist-friendly and eager to get along politically with other Arab countries as well as the West.
As suicide attacks took place routinely in Israel, large-scale bombings rocked hotels in Egypt and an insurgency raged in Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, Jordan largely escaped the region's violence.
At the same time, the type of attack that occurred Wednesday had long been seen by Amman as a possibility.
"We've always been concerned about it," said Taher Masri, a former Jordanian prime minister. "We've known the terrorists have been targeting Jordan for a long time."
Al Qaeda's confederates have been helping wage the bloody insurgency against U.S. troops and government security forces in Iraq. Al Qaeda's reported leader there, Zarqawi, has in past statements threatened to bring his fight home.
Current and former U.S. counter-terrorism officials pointed out that the Radisson SAS hotel has in the past been a target of both Al Qaeda and Zarqawi's affiliated but independent network. Al Qaeda, they said, has made repeated attempts on the same target.
Zarqawi, they said, was centrally involved in a plot in late 1999 to target Amman hotels during millennium celebrations. The plot was thwarted by Jordanian intelligence, and Zarqawi fled to his base in Afghanistan. He oversaw a terrorist training camp there until the post-Sept. 11 U.S. military strikes in October 2001. Several dozen militants were eventually convicted in the millennium plot, including Zarqawi and others in absentia.
Jordan's peaceful reputation may have been what drew the attackers to it, said Labib Kamhawi, a former political science professor at Jordan University in Amman.
"The more Jordan stressed this, the more determined these groups were to disrupt that safety," Kamhawi said.
The kingdom's security and intelligence services have long been known for skillful spy work -- and tough crackdowns against Islamic extremists and other would-be agitators.
One Western diplomat in Amman, in a 2004 interview, called Jordan "the most effective police state in the region."
But the threat of unrest has lurked beneath the surface for years. Jordan is poor, and its political life stifled. The population is heavily Palestinian, and public sympathy for the Palestinian cause put the government under intense pressure as it negotiated peace with Israel and kept up close ties with the U.S.
The war in Iraq and the grinding insurgency there further eroded stability, analysts say. Jordan became a staging ground for contractors, journalists, aid workers and diplomats headed into Iraq -- and a refuge for Iraqis fleeing the chaos. With public sentiment squarely against the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the Jordanian government has continued its public support for the United States.
"[Jordan] was always a fragile oasis," said Joost Hiltermann, an Amman-based analyst for the International Crisis Group. " ... It was only a matter of time before somebody got through."
Cracks have been showing in Jordan's seemingly impermeable security screen in recent years. In 2002, U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley was gunned down in front of his house in Amman. Earlier this year, militants in the Jordanian port city of Aqaba launched homemade missiles, narrowly missing a U.S. warship and killing a Jordanian soldier.
Masri, the former prime minister, said the attacks proved that the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 had begun to seriously destabilize the region.
"Iraq was not the source of terrorism [before the invasion]," Masri said, "but now it has become exactly that."
The bombings could prompt an exodus by the international aid organizations and multinational contracting and security companies for whom Jordan has served as a safe staging point for operations in Iraq. Kamhawi, the political analyst, predicted an abrupt end to Jordan's ongoing economic boom.
"A lot of the investments are coming because Jordan is safe," he said. "We don't have oil. We don't have water. All we have is stability."
Times staff writer Khalil reported from Cairo, staff writer Meyer from Washington and special correspondent Kadri from Amman. Staff writer Megan K. Stack in Bahrain also contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Acquainted with violence
A look at attacks connected with Jordan in recent years:
* Aug. 19, 2005: Attackers fire at least three rockets from the hills above the Jordanian port city of Aqaba, with one narrowly missing a U.S. Navy ship docked in the port and another hitting a taxi outside an airport in nearby Israel. A Jordanian soldier is killed.
* Aug. 7, 2003: A car bomb explodes outside the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad, killing at least 17 people, including two children. More than 50 people are wounded.
* Oct. 28, 2002: An American diplomat, Laurence Foley, is assassinated in front of his house in Amman, gunned down in the first such attack on a U.S. diplomat in decades.
* March 28, 1998: A crude bomb explodes in an elite English-language school in Amman in what one senior government official calls an apparent attempt to instigate attacks against Americans. The explosion shatters windows but causes no injuries.
* Jan. 17, 1998: Masked men raid a dinner party at the hillside mansion of a wealthy Iraqi businessman in Amman, slitting the throats of a top Baghdad diplomat and seven other people.
Source: Associated Press
Los Angeles Times