At the hospital, I meet Ahman, his chubby cherubic 20-year-old face scarred with burn marks, his arms charred to the bone, as he lies on a blood-stained bed at and tries to make sense of the day's horror, etched in his mind like a Hieronymus Bosch painting.
“Human beings were piled one on top of the other like pieces of meat,” he says, shivering. “I'm all choked up with shock I saw it with my own eyes.”
At the site of the explosion, the one today near a police recruiting station that killed dozens, the living continued the madness, even as the bodies and still moist remains of the dead were hauled away. Despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary, witnesses and residents blamed the Americans for the attack.
“This was a peaceful, modest lower-middle class neighborhood where everyone cared about everyone,” rages Hossein, a 41-year-old train driver who was sitting in a teashop when the explosion occurred. “I was born here. This explosion has changed everything in this neighborhood forever.”
Another day of bloody insanity in Iraq.
This marks my eighth trip into Iraq over a period of almost exactly two years. In that time I've covered more car bombings than I can remember. They've almost become routine: interview angry people at the scene, try to get comments from freaked out U.S. soldiers, race to the hospital and walk open-eyed through corridors of blood and grief. Interview victims and a doctor, or two. If I'm lucky, I get done with the reporting by early afternoon. If I'm real lucky, I forget about what I saw by dinner time.
Today I'm not lucky on either count.
The car bomb is aimed at the country's nascent U.S.-backed police forces. Most of the nearly 50 killed in Baghdad were unemployed young Iraqi men crowded around a police recruiting station, looking for work. Some were playing billiards and video games, to while away the hours while they waited for their applications to be taken. Others were sipping sweet, dark brewed tea at a teahouse.
They all carried those red and blue folders with photocopies birth certificates, report cards and medical records, a familiar sight to those navigating Iraq's bureaucracy. The explosion, centered right in front of the teashop, caught them completely by surprise.
“These operations are carried out by people using the latest techniques in killing people,” said Brigadier General “Amar,” who pleaded to me that his last name not be published for fear he'd be targeted by insurgents. “If it was in our capacity to stop such things before they happened, I would even sacrifice myself for them.”
At the scene of the Baghdad bombing, the nauseating odor of burnt flesh and streaks of blood litter the streets and sidewalks. “Long live bin Laden,” reads the graffiti on the building next to a local mosque.
Grieving and tearful civilians along with emergency workers collect corpses and body parts, including a severed head that lay near one of the 15 or so stores crushed by the explosion.
Ehsan is a 38-year-old who runs a music shop badly damaged in the blast. He flails about like a madman, flinging his broken drums and trumpets across his tiny shop.
“There were some kids playing billiards,” he says. “They were killed. There were young men waiting to join the police force. They were killed. There were customers in my shop. They died as well. Who can accept this? Does Jesus accept this? Does Moses accept this?”
American Apache helicopters hovered above the chaotic disaster site. Some of the Americans some attempti to turn the scene into a political rally. “Down with Allawi! Down with Bush!” one man chants.
Others shake their heads in disgust at those who blamed the attack on America instead of the rebels insurgents. “The man eating that sandwich died,'' says Al'a, pointing to a fried chickpea sandwich on the bench behind his cart.
He says he himself he helped carry at least 40 wounded, loading them into passenger cars and police trucks for the short trip to nearby Karkh hospital. He has no doubts whom to blame.
“Some call them Wahabbis, others resistance,” Tamimi said. “I call them terrorists. They kill by the dozen. Is this human?” Some of the locals an American helicopter had launched an air strike on the crowd, just as it had bombed Iraqis standing atop a burning Bradley fighting vehicle on nearby Haifa Street last Sunday. “It was an American rocket! American rocket!” young men scream. “It was the Americans!”
But luckily my translator operated mortars during the Iran-Iraq war, and is a bit of a artillery expert. He says the cheap unpolished, shrapnel from the explosion clearly shows that it was Iraqi-made ordnance, most likely leftovers from deposed Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's arsenal packed into a car, the style favored by Iraq's suicide bombers.
Others rail that the U.S. and Iraq's interim government should have done a better job protecting Iraqis from insurgents, or else remove potential targets of terrorism from the city.
“We blame the occupation forces and the Iraqi interim government for this explosion,” says Abdul, a resident of the area, known as a stronghold of Sunni Arabs favored under the deposed government of Saddam Hussein. “We ask them to remove this police facility from this area because it's a densely populated area.”
Most people living in a dense urban neighorhood, I think to myself, would welcome a police station in their midst.
Indeed, even the cops admit that the country is sputtering toward chaos. Police officer Ra'ad, 44, a 22-year veteran, says he was at a nearby garage having his car repaired when the bomb went off. He rushed to help the victims. “The government can't control the saboteurs,” he says. “The police are not in control.”
It had started out as a quiet, ordinary day, the capital's stifling summer had at last given way to a comfortable breeze. Ahman, the 20-year-old recruit lying in the hospital, remembers getting his paperwork together and heading to the Iraqi police recruiting station in the Karkh district, defying his mom's plea to avoid government buildings.
He remembers being told that the police weren't taking applications on this day, to come back the next day. He remembers turning on his heels dejectedly and walking away.
Next came the explosion, like a fiery thunderclap in his face. He woke up amid carnage that he can't get out of his mind.
“My mom didn't want me to join the police,” he says. “She said it was too dangerous. She was right. But what could I do? We're poor.”
In the hospital, Massoud, 24, lies moaning on his bed. The bomb had seared the flesh off his legs, wrapped heavily in Bandages. “I wanted to be recruited. I just wanted to be a policeman. I just wanted to be hired by someone,” he says.
“I was standing in line, all of a sudden there was an explosion and I couldn't feel anything,” he said. “I feinted and I was in an ambulance.” He voice trailed off as a narcotic drip mercifully ushered him off to sleep. In another corridor, an old woman shrouded in an all-covering black abaya sits on the ground and weeps softly. A blood soaked gurney stood idly by.
“No, no, no” a middle-aged man gently cries as his unmoving son, face covered in a bloody white sheet, is wheeled away toward the morgue. A shaken Amar Safar, deputy health minister, shakes his head as he scans the hospital. “Look at the dead body,” he says. “That's an Iraqi. If they are fighting for Iraq and the people of Iraq, then why are they attacking the Iraqis?”
Author Borzou Daragahi is a freelance journalist whose articles have appeared in major newspapers, including The New York Times. He sends out occasional letters like this one to friends and family. You can subscribe by sending a blank email to email@example.com.