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The Conflict in Iraq

Iraqis Fear Era of Relentless Chaos, Cruelty

The mood darkens among residents as a wave of bombings swells the death toll. The new violence quiets talk of success against rebels.

June 24, 2005|Patrick J. McDonnell and Ashraf Khalil | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — The explosions Thursday came not long after dawn, just hours after a triple bombing had torn through Baghdad's Shula neighborhood the previous evening.

This time, the victimized area was Karada, a middle-class district lately busy with shoppers, tea shop habitues and others hopeful that a breath of normality might be returning to this battered capital two years into a ferocious war with insurgents.

But the conflict here has a way of dashing hopes and quashing optimism. Four apparently synchronized car bombs tore through Karada, targeting two mosques, a popular bathhouse and a commercial street, leaving residents in shock over the carnage and destruction. A fifth bomb -- 200 pounds of explosives and a timing device inside a van -- was disarmed.

"It seems that we are reaching a point of no return," said an exasperated Abed Qadeer, a local architect.

In the chaos that followed the morning's attacks, much of central Baghdad was gridlocked and felt more menacing than usual. Masked Iraqi commandos riding in pickups and waving Kalashnikov rifles shut down streets and rerouted motorists.

By noon, U.S. tanks were rolling through the streets of Karada in one of the largest public shows of force in the area since Iraqis went to the polls Jan. 30, an event celebrated as a triumph of democracy over terrorism.

The unrelenting violence of the Iraq spring soon obscured the memories of defiant voters displaying ink-stained fingers after casting their ballots. Just a few days ago, however, U.S. and Iraqi officials were declaring Baghdad a success story, a place where a sweep called Operation Lightning had depleted the ranks of car bombers.

In fact, some of the blasts late Wednesday and early Thursday appeared to have been detonated remotely, perhaps supporting U.S. assertions that the supply of suicide bombers -- who have functioned as the insurgency's precision weapons -- is dwindling.

Still, with so many unfulfilled predictions of imminent triumph, cautious commanders in recent days have stopped short of declaring victory. Most acknowledge that the insurgency is likely to last for years, with "spikes" of multiple attacks.

"I would say we have been relatively successful in reducing the violence in Baghdad," Army Maj. Gen. William G. Webster, whose forces patrolled the city and environs, said before the latest spasm of attacks. "I believe that ... saying anything about 'breaking the back' or 'about to reach the end of the line' or those kinds of things do not apply to the insurgency at this point.

"The insurgency is shifting all the time," he said. "This is a learning enemy."

In fact, the bombings Wednesday and Thursday, which officials say were probably coordinated, represent some of the most violent and best-planned insurgent attacks in the capital to date.

At least 15 people were killed and 50 injured in the four Karada blasts. The dead included at least three police officers. The three bombs in the Shula district late Wednesday took at least 18 lives. Both neighborhoods are home largely to Shiite Muslims, and blame immediately fell on Sunni Arab insurgents intent on toppling the Shiite-led government and ousting U.S. troops.

In the aftermath, such neat sectarian explanations failed to satisfy many Iraqis still bewildered by how their nation had gone so far astray.

The insurgency has morphed into something beyond many Iraqis' comprehension. The armed rebellion has become a cunning, lethal force that can strike anywhere, any time, mocking the frequent pronouncements by U.S. and Iraqi officials who tout the latest arrests and successes.

"Saddam [Hussein] used to kill the people who opposed him, but the killing nowadays is random," said Yahya Salem, a retired government worker in Karada. "We have transformed from a dictatorship into something far worse. We have lost our country."

More than two years after Hussein's fall, Iraq's elected government must meet in a heavily fortified area called the Green Zone, and no one knows when a car bomb, bullet or indiscriminate piece of shrapnel might take his or her life. With summer just a few days old, Iraqis fear a blistering season of bombings, water shortages, power blackouts and miles-long gas lines.

"This is no longer a place where people can live," said Khilood Mohammed, a mother of three whose neighborhood has been the scene of intense clashes. "No light of hope can be seen on the horizon."

The sense of dread is difficult to escape, said her son Mohammed Salim, an engineering student. "You can hardly wander downtown or play a sport or go out with your family without being preoccupied with feelings of anxiety and intimidation."

Late Thursday, Karada's streets, normally throbbing with life at the end of the Iraqi workweek, were thinly populated. The air still reeked of explosives and smoldering rubble.

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