BAGHDAD — A car bomb devastated an outdoor market Thursday in east Baghdad, killing 26 people and wounding 37 others, police and medical sources said.
The attack in the predominantly Shiite Muslim district of Shaab came about a week after Iraqi forces removed blast walls from the area in the belief that security was improving.
"Before, the concrete barriers didn't allow the cars to enter this market . . . but these T-Walls were removed recently by the security forces," said Mohammed abu Mariam, 45, who was shopping at the time.
He described seeing dead women and children and dismembered bodies on the street. The explosion set cars on fire and shattered car windows, and the air smelled of burned flesh. Others described women wandering the street shouting for loved ones.
The blast was the third major attack in the capital this month. Although the overall number of civilian deaths is far lower than during the country's civil war several years ago, hopes that Iraq could completely end the bombings and killings that have defined it since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 have proved illusory.
With the relatively improved security, the Iraqi government has been eager to remove the concrete barriers that wall off districts, major intersections, markets and other gathering spots, where militants once set off car bombs sometimes two or three times daily.
Many of the blast walls were put in place by the U.S. military during its troop buildup in 2007 and proved effective in stemming the bloodshed. The barriers not only proved to be a real obstacle to car bombs but also helped slow the movement of Sunni Arab and Shiite armed groups around Baghdad.
As effective as the blast walls were, for the government they became a symbol of Baghdad's collapse into sectarian war and its lack of normalcy. As life gradually improved last year, the Iraqi government started talking about its wish to remove them. On Wednesday, an Iraqi military spokesman announced plans to remove more barriers, though many streets remain blocked.
After the blast walls were removed recently near the Jamia market, more shops opened and the area became even busier.
"The bad people, those who don't want any good thing for Iraq . . . left a car bomb near the market. It became easier for them to leave a car bomb or a smaller bomb," said Mohammed Hatim, a 25-year-old university student.
The bombing was reminiscent of the attack two weeks ago in which a suicide bomber on a motorcycle struck police recruits waiting outside the Interior Ministry compound in downtown Baghdad. That attack killed more than 30 people and, like Thursday's attack, targeted a large group assembled in public.
Despite the recent bombings, U.S. military spokesman Army Maj. Gen. David Perkins told reporters Wednesday that violence in Iraq was at its lowest levels since the early months after the invasion.
According to Perkins, attacks have dropped to levels seen in August 2003, when the Sunni insurgency first began its campaign of car bombings that presaged the troubles ahead. Attacks have fallen by 90% since June 2007, when the U.S. troop buildup, known as the surge, was well underway, Perkins said.
Some Sunni leaders from the U.S.-allied Sons of Iraq paramilitary groups, made up of former insurgents, said they feared violence was rising because the U.S. military was releasing too many suspected militants from its detention centers as it looks to close facilities and hand over operations to the Iraqi government.
"If the American forces release the prisoners arbitrarily, of course they will return to do the bad things. Some of them have been organized or recruited inside Camp Bucca [a U.S. detention facility]," said a Sunni paramilitary leader named Sameer Ahmad Salman Azzawi, from the Baghdad neighborhood of Adhamiya.
Times staff writer Saif Hameed contributed to this report.