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Defiant Jordanians Rally After Attacks

Times Staff Writers

Waving national flags and pictures of their king, Jordanians took to the streets in a show of defiant anger over the suicide bombings at three hotels in the nation’s capital for which Islamic militants in Iraq purportedly claimed responsibility Thursday.

An official day of mourning closed government offices and businesses and gave stunned residents an opportunity to express their outrage at Wednesday’s suicide bombings, which left 56 people dead, dozens more injured and shattered Jordan’s carefully groomed image as an isle of calm in an otherwise turbulent region.

Flags flew at half-staff, and radio stations played patriotic songs throughout the day. Motorists honked, and marchers held banners condemning terrorism as modestly sized rallies were held in Amman, the capital, and in countryside villages. Wearing red-checked kaffiyehs, youthful demonstrators chanted allegiance to King Abdullah II and denounced Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Al Qaeda-linked Jordanian national whose Iraq-based militant group is believed responsible for the blasts.

A statement said to have been written by Zarqawi’s group and posted on an Islamist website took responsibility for the attacks, but the validity of the claim could not be verified. The statement tied the attacks to the group’s fight against U.S. forces in Iraq. Amman is a key stopover for officials and contractors on their way to Iraq, and the three hotels that were hit -- the Radisson SAS, the Grand Hyatt and the Days Inn -- were known to be frequented by Westerners.

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More than half of those killed in the blasts, 33, were Jordanians, Deputy Prime Minister Marwan Muasher said Thursday. Others killed included six Iraqis, two Bahrainis, two Chinese, an Indonesian, a Syrian, a Saudi and an American. Madison Conoley, spokesman for the embassy, said he could not confirm reports that as many as four other Americans were injured.

In Los Angeles, a family member said Thursday that a producer’s daughter who died in the blast was an American who lived in Beirut.

Patricia Akkad told Associated Press that Rima Akkad Monla, 34, was in Amman for a wedding. Akkad’s ex-husband, Moustapha Akkad, produced the “Halloween” movies and “Lion of the Desert.”

It was unclear whether Monla, a USC graduate, was the American that the State Department listed as dead.

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Authorities said several people had been detained, but they did not say whether they were suspects or witnesses. Some news reports said Iraqi nationals were among those held, but police said they would not disclose the identities or nationalities of those detained because the investigation was still in its early phases.

Muasher said authorities had concluded that remains of the suicide bombers had been found among those of the 56 dead victims. He said investigators hoped to identify the suspected bombers through DNA.

The FBI on Thursday sent a team of specialized bomb investigators to Amman at the request of the Jordanian government that included, officials said, at last five experts in evidence recovery, explosives and bomb forensics.

Several U.S. counter-terrorism officials said that all preliminary indications pointed to the attack being the work of the militant group run by Zarqawi, called Al Qaeda in Iraq. They noted that his operatives had tried to launch terrorist strikes against Amman in the past. Officials also cited a 2004 audio recording issued in Zarqawi’s name in which he vowed “more fierce confrontations with the Jordanian government.”

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Zarqawi, who spent several years in Jordanian prisons before being released in 1999 after Abdullah took the throne, has long had ties to the loose-knit Al Qaeda network founded by Osama bin Laden.

The king on Thursday promised a stiff fight to bring those responsible to justice.

“We will pursue those criminals and those who are behind them, and we will reach them wherever they are,” he said in a brief televised address, according to Reuters news agency.

Jordan remained under tight security and a heavier-than-normal police presence, though its land borders were reopened after being shut down following the bombings Wednesday evening. Officials promised stepped-up efforts to prevent future terrorist actions, without detailing what those measures would be.

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The U.S. Embassy issued a notice Thursday advising Americans to take precautions and to “postpone any nonessential travel to Jordan until the situation here clarifies.”

Muasher defended Jordan’s overall readiness, saying authorities had succeeded in thwarting a number of past terrorist plots. “Just because we don’t publicize all of them doesn’t mean they are not there,” he said.

“This madness has reached us, and we have to deal with it,” Muasher said.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, en route to Bahrain as part of a previously scheduled trip to the region, called the triple attack a “terrible tragedy.”

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“The demonstrations [in Jordan] show that ordinary people are really tired of these killers,” Rice said.

In Washington, President Bush said, “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.”

Meanwhile, Jordanians sought to digest the effect of violence that many had feared, despite the country’s past relative tranquillity. Zarqawi’s group had claimed responsibility for an attack this year in which militants in the Jordanian seaport of Aqaba fired rockets at a U.S. warship but missed.

“It is not good for Islam, for anybody,” said Ali Kamal Homesi, whose 30-year-old cousin, Yusef Omar Homesi, was among those killed in the Radisson bombing, which hit a wedding party.

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“They are not usual human beings. They are killers,” said Homesi, 28, who was joined by about two dozen others under a mourning tent in the farming village of Wadi Rayan, about an hour northwest of Amman.

About 200 people, mostly in their teens and 20s, held a vigil in front of the bomb-damaged Radisson on Thursday evening. Urged to the gathering by phone text messages, they lighted red and white candles and placed flowers on the stone steps. Some sang out chants: “Jordanians will never break!” Others used their cellphones to snap photographs of the flickering tableau.

“This is a way to show them, ‘Do what you want, we’re not going to break up,’ ” said Abdullah Kalaji, a 16-year-old high school student attending the vigil.

Some officials said the incident could serve as a social unifier in Jordan, where poverty and limited political rights have stirred division and resentment against the country’s elites. The bombings were also seen as evidence of the need for more restrictions on who can enter and leave Jordan. Iraqis, for example, have poured in since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 and are now said to number 500,000 or more.

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The attacks stirred deep unease in neighboring Israel. Among Arab nations, Jordan probably has the closest and most cordial ties with Israel, and many Israelis travel to Jordan for business and tourism.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry denied a report that Israeli citizens had been evacuated from one of the hotels before the explosions. About a dozen Israeli nationals left Amman with the assistance of Jordanian authorities, according to ministry spokesman Mark Regev. But he said they left after the attacks, not before.

Israel’s daily Haaretz newspaper backtracked from an earlier report in which it said Israelis had been told to leave the Radisson earlier Wednesday in response to a specific intelligence warning.

Israelis for months have been advised to avoid travel to Jordan, along with other destinations including Egypt’s Sinai peninsula. One Israeli citizen, an Arab businessman from the town of Umm al Fahm, was identified as being among the dead.

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For Palestinians, the attack felt particularly close to home. Many West Bank Palestinians have relatives in Jordan, with extended clans stretching across the border.

A large number of those attending the ill-fated wedding at the Radisson were from a clan that originally hailed from the West Bank village of Silat Dahr, south of Jenin, though no one from the village was at the affair.

At least five Palestinians, including two senior security officials, were killed, Palestinian officials said.

The slain security men were the chief of military intelligence in the West Bank and the director-general of the Palestinian Interior Ministry.

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Jordanian officials expressed concern that the bombings could cause at least short-term damage to tourism, the country’s biggest money-earner. But overall, they sought to strike a tone of stiff-upper-lip resolve, asserting that Jordan was determined to return to normal life.

“We’re shocked, yes. But that was as of last night. This morning, we’re all up, going and determined to be steadfast,” said Akel Biltaji, a former tourism minister who is an advisor to the king. “We have 5.6 million security agents now. Every Jordanian is now going to be a watchdog.”

By evening, workers at the Radisson had walled off the ruined banquet hall where the wedding party was underway when the explosion struck, sending bodies and glass flying. An international medical conference on primary care, postponed because of the bombing, was set to begin Saturday, though in a different spot. Newly arriving guests continued to check into the hotel.

But Jaime and Maureen Ballesteros, a Michigan couple shaken in their 7th-floor room when the bomb went off, said they had decided to pack up and go home early.

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They will skip the conference and cut short a trip that was to have taken them to the shore of the Dead Sea and across the border into Israel.

“Our comfort zone -- our safety -- has been broken at this point,” said Jaime Ballesteros, a 53-year-old neurologist. “We need some time to recover.”

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Times staff writers Laura King in Jerusalem, Josh Meyer in Washington and Tyler Marshall in Shannon, Ireland, contributed to this report.

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