BAGHDAD — It was shortly after 10 a.m. when Baghdad provincial council member Mohammed Rubaie left his office with a bodyguard who needed a ride. They drove one block up Haifa Street, passing security checkpoints and the Mansour Melia hotel, home to many Iraqi politicians.
Cars clogged the road as they approached the traffic circle in front of the Justice Ministry, with its statue of modern Iraq's first ruler, King Faisal, mounted on a horse. An old white pickup truck had broken down by the traffic circle and its driver approached a policeman and started yelling. Rubaie watched the argument, a bit annoyed.
It was then that the first of two car bombs exploded on opposite ends of the block. The blasts left 147 dead and added a bloody new chapter to the unremitting violence that has left Iraqis so deeply tired and angry and so often disenchanted with their government.
The explosion lifted Rubaie's white Corolla into the air and slammed it down hard. Dust and black smoke enveloped him. The bodyguard told him not to leave the car. Then, the second bomb went off outside the provincial council office they had left only about five minutes earlier.
Rubaie threw off his suit jacket and tie and headed back toward the council building. He stepped over body parts and pools of blood. People fished out pieces of flesh floating in sewage water from a burst water main.
Men and women cried "God is great!" as they yelled for help picking up the dead and wounded. Some said, "This is a catastrophe on Iraq" or "This is because of the elections."
"The most amazing thing I saw was a man they lifted out from under the concrete wall. His whole body was intact from his shoulder down, his clothes were clean and not ripped, but his head was crushed and unrecognizable," Rubaie said.
Blast walls had fallen back into the provincial council building. Cars and trucks were piled on top of one another.
"We were looking for our friends and partners, survivors," he said. "We were crying, hugging and trying to help each other. One person was dead and another lived. You have tears on the one hand and then smiles for those who survived."
Rubaie saw a waiter named Ali dive into a crater in front of the building caused by the blast that had filled with sewage and try to scoop out remains, but he couldn't swim and started to drown. One of Rubaie's bodyguards dived in and pulled Ali out.
Rubaie said at least 25 provincial council building employees were killed around the building and its parking lot.
One was a bodyguard named Abbas, who always told jokes. All that was left of him was his identity card.
Another was Sabah, a security guard at the gate who always smiled and wished a good morning to every visitor. His body was charred almost beyond recognition.
Rubaie embraced those who lived, those covered in dust like himself. He had survived bombings in 2007 in Baghdad's commercial Karada district, but this was different. "There was no humanity," he said, recounting the events by phone.
At the Mansour Melia hotel, parking attendant Zaid Haidar was puffing on a Galois cigarette when the first explosion sent glass and debris raining down. He started to bleed from cuts on his arms, hands and back. Nonetheless, he ran out and rushed toward the Justice Ministry, where there were dead all around, but the statue of Faisal was intact.
"Nobody knew what was going on. I forgot about the blood from my hands and legs, especially after I saw four dead women on the ground. They had on head scarves and looked like civil servants," he said.
He also passed four lifeless Iraqi soldiers in a car.
The blast had torn down the ministry's facade and flames ravaged the building. A jawbone and blackened teeth lay on the ground. Policemen and soldiers fired assault rifles and machine guns in the air.
Others began to curse the security officers and politicians:
"You are doing nothing." "All you do is stand and play with your mobile phones." "The parliament and government are fighting for their seats and leaving the criminals alone."
Haidar, 27, picked up two wounded men and put them on a pickup truck before heading back to the hotel. Friends rushed him to the hospital for treatment. In the late afternoon, he returned home.
"My mother was crying when she saw me. I told her, 'I am OK, Mom. I am in good shape.' I saw my 5-month-old son, Mohammed. I never thought I'd see him again," he said.
Haidar, talking by phone late Sunday, made it clear that he thought the situation would only worsen. He found himself alternately wishing that American troops still patrolled Baghdad or that officers from Saddam Hussein's regime would return and save the country.
He said in an exhausted voice: "We will see more bombings and more violence. Political disputes will increase. Things will never be solved here."
Ahmed is a Times staff writer.