BAGHDAD — Even though the blast was less than 15 feet away through a wall, it sounded like a dull thud followed a small tremor.
I was in the shower at 2:30 PM — my first in days — when the bomb inside the nearby convention center went off. The center is used by the Iraqi parliament.
There was no shouting or sounds of panic in the first few moments. More like quiet astonishment. The Green Zone is supposed to be an island of safety.
As I hustled into my clothes, one marine called to another in the bivouac: “Was that another mortar?”
“That was no mortar,” the other said.
I ran after them and clambered over the green-sandbagged concrete wall that had sheltered the CPIC (Combined Press Information Center) from the brunt of the blast. The ambulances were pulling up along with armored humvees.
I roamed widely, taking in the scene and talking to eyewitnesses.
At first, no one could decide who was in charge: the U.S. military, the Iraqi police who actually guard the members of parliament, or the men from Triple Canopy, a private security company based near Dulles Airport in Virginia.
With a bullhorn and sheer force of will, the leader of the local Triple Canopy team, a short thick man in a baseball cap, took charge.
Heavily-armed men from Triple Canopy, mostly Peruvian, escorted every one inside the building into a parking lot ringed with a 10-foot high chain-link fence. This became a holding pen. An American Triple Canopy employee told me that they suspected the bomber may have had an accomplice in the building. Therefore, everyone was going to held and searched.
Meanwhile, ambulances kept arriving. Soon the death toll would rise to eight (including at least one member of parliament) and at least 23 were reported wounded by the blast.
Witnesses told me that it was definitely a suicide-bomber attack. One Iraqi said that the bomber had removed the armored plates from a standard body armor vest and replaced them with explosives. Other witnesses, in somewhat broken English, would not confirm that account.
No one could agree on what the bomber looked like, aside from the fact he was a dark-haired male.
The witnesses I was able to talk to through the chain-link fence of the holding pen said that the bomber seemed to linger at the edge of second-floor cafeteria until a seat at the center table opened up. Then he calmly walked to that table and sat down. The explosion followed in seconds.
The U.S. Embassy translator, an Iraqi with a trim mustache and a baseball cap, confirmed that the bomber selected the center table in order to maximize casualties.
Speculation among the penned-up witnesses ran wild. Some thought that the bomber had decided to target Mohammed Awad, a lawmaker from the National Dialogue Party, a predominantly Sunni party.
U.S. military personnel filled in additional details. The American soldiers asked not to be cited by name, because they are not authorized to give statements to the press. Two suicide vests were discovered inside the Green Zone on April 1, setting off a massive search for additional bombs, I was told. It is possible, a corporal said, that the vests were smuggled in weeks earlier and the bomber was told where to find the hidden cache.
No one here has any confidence in Iraqi security, which is responsible for maintaining security around the convention center.
Over dinner at the U.S. embassy, Col. Boylan, who heads public affairs for U.S. forces in Iraq, refused to comment on the record. He said it was an Iraqi matter.
The Iraqi matter was not handled with style and grace. After some shouting, several Iraqi members of parliament were able to leave the holding pen and drive off in the cars, leaving nearly 80 others trapped in the hot sun. Whether they left out of concern for their own safety or their convenience is anyone’s guess.
A U.S. Air Force non-commissioned officer passed bottle of water through the fence.
The Triple Canopy commander turned on the bullhorn again. “Bring the babies to the front.”
Several women had been spotted holding babies. At the this point the crowd had been caged in the scorching sun for several hours. Triple Canopy wanted to escort them a female-screener at checkpoint three, but the women refused to leave without their husbands. Arguments in Arabic and English erupted.
Eventually everyone was marched out in two columns while armed men kept them moving.
It is unlikely that the bomber acted alone. He would need help to penetrate several layers of security to get inside the Green Zone. The question that hung in the air: Was his accomplice among the sweating suits being escorted out or was he one of the guards?
Richard Miniter is Pajamas Media’s Washington editor. He is currently on special assignment in Iraq.