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(photo credit: AP)
Al-Qaida-Iraq claimed responsibility on Thursday for the triple-suicide bombings that rocked this normally sleepy capital Wednesday night, as thousands took to the streets to protest what they called Jordan's "9/11."
As columns of Jordanians blasting their horns and pumping pictures of King Abdullah II clogged Amman city streets, security officials fanned out across the country to hunt for suspects.
King Abdullah, in a terse televised address to the nation Thursday evening, vowed to avenge the attacks and to "pull from their holes" the godless terrorists who dispatched the attackers.
Earlier Thursday, Jordanian security officials detained and began to interrogate suspects, Police Maj. Bashir al-Da'aja told the AP.
All three bombings on the American-owned hotels were conducted by suicide bombers, Jordanian Deputy Prime Minister Marwan Muasher told reporters.
The blasts claimed 56 lives, including an Israeli-Arab and an American citizen, US and Israeli Embassy officials said.
The international community, including US President George W. Bush and UN secretary General Kofi Annan, condemned the brutal attacks. But Jordanians on the streets and their officials felt it was they who would deal with Al-Qaida and its Jordanian-born commander, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
"The people who did this attack are like bugs," said Hannah Sirhan, swaddled in a headscarf. "And should be crushed," chimed in a passerby.
On the Qaida Web site claiming responsibility for the attack, the group said it attacked sites used by "US and Israeli spies."
None of the locals interviewed by The Jerusalem Post blamed the bombings on Jordanian support for the US or the West. Nor was Jordan's neighbor to the West, Israel, the problem.
"There is no inherent message in these attacks," said Suha Karadsheh, hiding her tears behind sunglasses. "We must fight the terrorists. The only problem is that they don't want Jordan to be safe," she said.
Until Wednesday viewed as a beacon of stability in the Middle East, Amman served as a prime business setting and a convenient jumping-off point to other Arab states.
The rallies in support of the regime were also a hearkening back to Jordan's reputation as a beacon of stability in the Middle East, a safe-haven for foreigners and a place that keeps an iron fisted grip on "trouble-makers."
In interviews with witnesses Thursday, that reputation ran headlong into reality. The bombing decimated families, and shattered national hopes that Jordan could maintain its economic resurgence based on increased tourism and investment by wealthy Iraqis.
King Abdullah declared a day of mourning and ordered schools and public institutions closed. Shops in the capital were shuttered and flags lowered to half-mast. The king also canceled a planned trip to Israel.
What had started out in the morning as state-propagated rallies in remote villages like the Jordan Valley's al-Mashara to Amman transformed into massive outpourings of support for the regime. Thousands of Jordanians filed by the Radisson Hotel, the hardest hit with as many as 25 deaths, Asst. Gen. Manager Bassem Banna told reporters outside the hotel Thursday afternoon. The protesters chanted pro-government statements, blasted national songs on their car stereos and brandished placards demanding an end to terrorism. Professional billboard designer George Rizkale created one specially for the rally. It read: "Terrorism is a cancer on all humanity."
Away from the cameras, an impromptu candle light vigil began outside the Days Inn Hotel in the al-Rabiya neighborhood, not far from the Israeli Embassy. There, youths chanted their homage to the Hashemite Kingdom, while others sat quietly in little gaggles, lit candles and prayed.
Supervising the installation of the Days Inn Hotel's first metal detector on Thursday, Mazen Sabbah, sales and marketing director at the hotel, said the bomber had attempted to gain entrance in the hotel, ordered a drink and then left. He blew himself up just outside the hotel's terrace, killing three. So powerful was the blast that some of the bomber's remains stuck to the hotel's fourth-floor fa ade.
Sabbah believes the bombing had "nothing to do with the proximity of the Israeli Embassy."
Worst hit, and now the heartbreaking icon for these attacks, was the Palestinian-Jordanian al Akhras family. Celebrating the wedding of Ashraf al Akhras and Nadia al Alam at the Amman Radisson, the families had just finished the Zafa Palestinian traditional dance when the bomber detonated his charge, literally bringing the roof down on dozens of guests.
The groom's father died in the bombing. In a gruesome twist of fate, the father, Khaled al-Khaled, whom his family called a "large man," absorbed the bulk of the blast, sparing at least five people waiting behind him to enter the Radisson's wedding hall.
In the din and choking dust, his son Basher tried to save him. He swiped a scarf he found and along with a cousin, tried to staunch his father's head wound, he said in an interview from the Jordan Hospital in Amman.
According to Basher al-Khaled, seven cousins including an infant died in the blast along with his father.
Foreign Ministry Director-General Ron Prosor traveled Thursday to a place UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan dared not go: Amman.
While Annan, currently in Saudi Arabia, postponed his trip "in light of the bombings" and was scheduled to go to Jordan on Friday, Prosor went ahead with previously scheduled meetings in the Jordanian capital.
Prosor, who met with a number of senior Jordanian officials, said they were greatly appreciative of the gesture.
"We are a country that has suffered terror and I decided to go ahead with the original program to carry out the meetings to send a message that we continue with day-to-day life despite the terror," Prosor said.
Prosor brought a condolence letter from Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom to Jordanian Foreign Minister Farouk Kasrawi.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon phoned Abdullah Thursday to extend his condolences. According to Sharon's office, Sharon said it was "forbidden to compromise with extremist terror and that it must be fought with determination."
Meanwhile, Magen David Adom offered help to Jordan in coping with the victims of the Amman terror attacks as soon as it learned of them. MDA director-general Eli Bin proposed sending medical equipment, a delegation of physicians and units of whole blood and blood components to the Jordanian Red Crescent Society. MDA said it could park ambulances at border crossings for transporting casualties to Israeli hospitals in case of need.
Bin wrote to the Jordanian embassy in Israel to send MDA's condolences to the families of the victims and a speedy recovery to the injured.
However, while Jordanian Red Crescent Society officials responded quickly and thanked MDA for its readiness to assist, they said that at this point, they would fend for themselves.
Herb Keinon and Judy Siegel contributed to this report.