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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Questions Echo Amid the Din of Explosions

`How can people protect themselves? From which enemy?' Iraqis grapple with the latest major attack, horrific even by Baghdad standards.

September 02, 2006|Patrick J. McDonnell and Raheem Salman | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — The civil defense men in blue uniforms joined neighborhood volunteers picking through the rubble with their hands, there being no heavy equipment to aid in this thankless task. Dedicated young men used a nylon sack to bag jagged bits of flesh, now destined for a proper Muslim interment.

"Why so many explosions at the same time?" asked Mohammed Mayahi, 57, whose sons were among those burrowing for signs of life and death in the heap of debris that a day earlier had been a two-story apartment building, alive with families, shops and a restaurant. "How can people protect themselves? From which enemy? We must be vigilant, yes, but against which form of killing?"

Such was the doleful and confused scene Friday in the east Baghdad neighborhood of Habibiya, where something -- a rocket, a bomb, a mortar shell, no one seemed to know quite what -- tore into a building just before sundown as residents gathered on the eve of the weekly Islamic day of prayer, rest and contemplation.

The day-after canvass through the ruins has become so familiar in this tormented nation that the images may now seem to some cliche, the grief ritualized.

But they were all too real in Habibiya and nearby districts, targets of a highly coordinated bombardment that was stunning even by Baghdad's gruesome standards. The official toll from Thursday's attack: 63 killed and 282 injured. Of the dead, 19 were children younger than 16 and 24 were women, a police official said.

The weapons included rockets, mortars, car bombs and, in a twist, bombs placed inside buildings and apparently set off by timers. In some cases, authorities said, the plotters may have rented apartments and shops with the sole intention of blowing them up -- a sinister new turn in Iraq's cycle of carnage.

"These terrorists always seem capable of inventing a new way to kill people," said Mohammed Askari, a Defense Ministry spokesman.

Thursday's attack, which occurred over a 25-minute period starting at 6:05 p.m., struck a broad arc of mostly Shiite Muslim neighborhoods. It caused casualties in half a dozen districts on the east side of the Tigris River, the murky dividing line in the sectarian war pitting Sunni against Shiite.

Suspicion fell on the Sunni Arab guerrillas engaged in a brutal conflict with the majority Shiite sect.

Witnesses at various bomb sites Friday recounted the chaos.

"I heard the explosion, and I realized it was in the building where I live," recalled Mohammed Jawad, 29, who was walking on a street in the New Baghdad neighborhood, which was hit by several blasts.

He ran to his apartment, where his wife, Zainab, and the couple's two young children were enmeshed in the rubble. "I didn't know where to search," Jawad said, recalling his panic.

All of them lived, but the couple's 4-year-old son was hospitalized with a head injury.

A survivor told of trampling over women's bodies as he escaped through a series of destroyed shops specializing in clothing and cosmetics.

"Can we label this resistance?" a leading Shiite cleric, Sadruddin Qubanchi, asked during his sermon from the city of Najaf, sacred ground to the Shiites. "No, what is happening is terrorism and the stuff of thieves and the displacement of people because of their identities."

Such barbarity inevitably breeds response in Iraq's tit-for-tat atmosphere that threatens to accelerate into all-out civil war. On Friday, the imams dutifully urged moderation, as they have for weeks and months as the bodies have piled up.

"All Iraqis must come together and be united," said Mahmoud Sumaidaie at Umm Qura Mosque, a leading Sunni house of worship in the capital. "God will certainly bless this unity."

But the concept of unity has been eclipsed lately as self-styled avengers seek payback for each new outrage. For every bomb victim, it seems, someone else is found dead in a lot or a back street.

Though no one has done the math, it may be that as many Iraqis have been killed lately execution-style, with a bullet through the skull, as have perished in mass bombings such as Thursday's, which buried dozens.

"We pulled about 25 bodies from the rubble," said Iedin Ayoob, a Christian shop owner in New Baghdad, where one of the explosions tore into a three-story building, home to Christians and Muslims, including Kurds, killing residents and passersby. "We found a man's body that was divided in two parts. We found a minibus driver killed while he was in his vehicle."

Ayoob's friend Haider Abdullah, who owns a cellphone shop, chimed in with a tale of survivors: two men enveloped by the blast as they were shaking hands. Buried together, they were found by rescuers in a kind of embrace, miraculously uninjured.

"They started laughing when we found them," Abdullah recalled.

On Friday, residents stared at the destruction as shopkeepers picked up scattered belongings. Someone recalled a line of Arab poetry, something about the inevitability of death, be it by the sword or other means.

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