BAGHDAD, Iraq - Rockets struck a Baghdad hotel housing foreign contractors and journalists late Thursday, drawing return fire and underscoring the precarious security in the heart of the Iraqi capital. Outside Baghdad, roadside bombings killed two more American soldiers.
More scattered explosions reverberated through the heart of the Iraqi capital around midnight, but it wasn't known what caused the blasts or if there were any casualties.
The rocket attacks came as an aide to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr offered to disarm his Mahdi Army militia in a move that could bring an end to weeks of fighting in Baghdad's Shiite district Sadr City. The government cautiously welcomed the offer and suggested other militant groups also lay down their arms.
Three Katyusha rockets slammed into the Sheraton hotel, the Interior Ministry said, triggering thunderous explosions, shattering windows and setting off small fires. Dazed guests, including Western journalists, contractors and a bride and groom on their wedding night stumbled to safety through the smoke and debris.
"I made a mistake by booking at the Sheraton," said Hayer Abdul Zahra, holding his shivering bride under his arm. "I knew something like this would happen."
There were no deaths or serious injuries, Iraqi officials said.
The hotels, which have been targeted by rockets and mortars before, stand as symbols of continued U.S. and Western dominance in Iraq despite the formal handover of power to an interim Iraqi government June 28.
Interior Ministry spokesman Col. Adnan Abdul-Rahman said the rockets were fired from the back of a minibus parked near Firdous Square, where jubilant crowds hauled down a statue of Saddam Hussein on April 9, 2003, marking the fall of the capital to American forces.
A fourth rocket blew up inside the vehicle, he said, as security guards responded with ear-shattering volleys of automatic weapons and machine gun fire.
"It was a shattering explosion, a crack and then a massive, massive thud," said John Cookson of Fox News, which maintains an office in the Sheraton. "The whole room shook."
Late Thursday, residents reported strong explosions northwest of the Sunni insurgent stronghold Fallujah.
Earlier, in the capital, a mortar shell exploded in the U.S.-controlled Green Zone across the Tigris River from the hotel compound. There was no report of damage or casualties.
U.S. authorities raised a security alert in the Green Zone after an improvised bomb was found in front of a restaurant there on Tuesday. A U.S. military ordnance detachment safely disarmed the device, U.S. officials said.
American and Iraqi authorities are trying to curb the growing insurgency in Baghdad and elsewhere in order for national elections to take place by the end of January. Some U.S. military officials have expressed doubt that balloting can be held in all parts of the country.
In an effort to restore order, the government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi has been talking with representatives from insurgency hotspots, including the radical Shiite stronghold Sadr City in the northeast of the capital.
Late Thursday, a spokesman for al-Sadr, the militant Shiite leader, offered to hand over medium and heavy weapons and cooperate with Iraqi security forces if the government will stop pursuing militia members and release the cleric's followers in detention.
The offer by Ali Smeisem on Al-Arabiya television contained no explicit promise to disband the militia, as demanded by U.S. and Iraqi authorities. However, a senior security official, Qassim Dawoud, cautiously welcomed the offer and urged other armed groups to lay down their arms.
Elsewhere, the U.S. command said one American soldier from the 13th Corps Support Command died and two others were wounded when a roadside bomb exploded late Wednesday near Fallujah. A 1st Infantry Division soldier was also killed and an Iraqi interpreter wounded in a bombing near Beiji, 155 miles north of Baghdad, the command said.
As part of the new security push, more than 3,000 U.S. and Iraqi forces are trying to clear an insurgent stronghold in towns and villages just south of Baghdad notorious for kidnappings and ambushes.
The U.S. command said 11 suspected insurgents were captured Thursday, bringing the total number apprehended since the operation south of the capital began this week to 59. Four U.S. Marines, three Iraqi National Guard members and three civilians have been wounded so far in the operation.
In the northern city of Mosul, the U.S. military reported arresting 12 suspected insurgents in a series of raids Wednesday. Eight others were arrested in Tal Afar, scene of heavy fighting last month, after a homemade bomb was found beneath an Iraqi police car.
Meanwhile, about 240 detainees were released from U.S. and Iraqi custody Thursday in a continuing effort to reduce the inmate population and free those not deemed not a security threat. Such releases were accelerated after a wave of public outrage swept the world following publication last April of pictures showing Americans abusing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison.
Thursday's release was the fourth under a joint U.S.-Iraqi review process set up in Aug. 21. About 830 detainees have been freed in all since the Combined Review and Release Board began screening prisoner records.
Some 2,000 "security detainees" remain at in U.S. custody at Abu Ghraib, near Baghdad, and 3,000 at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq, said Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a military spokesman.
The U.S. military aims to transfer the bulk of the remaining Abu Ghraib security detainees to Camp Bucca, which is currently being expanded and upgraded to become the primary holding facility at the start of next year, Johnson said.
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