2004International Reporting

In a Moment, Lives Get Blown Apart

By: 
Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
March 27, 2003;
Page A01

previous | index | next

BAGHDAD, March 26 -- Shards of corrugated tin dangled from roofs like chimes, colliding on the winds of a savage sandstorm. Shattered pipes poured sewage into the streets. The charred carcasses of cars sat smoldering, hurled onto the sidewalk.

Ali Abdel-Jabbar watched helplessly as his friend, Mohammed Abdel-Sattar, lay on the ground, his legs torn off. He lived. Across the street was the severed hand of Samad Rabai, tossed gracelessly in a pool of blood and mud. He died.

In a moment, two explosions transformed a busy stretch of life today into a junkyard of mangled wires, uprooted trees, toppled lights, anguish and grief.

Iraqi officials said at least 14 people were killed and 30 injured in the blasts -- a count that matched hospital estimates -- in the biggest loss of civilian life in Baghdad since U.S. and British air attacks began last week. The explosions devastated a 100-yard swath of shops, homes and a restaurant in the working-class neighborhood of Shaab, on Baghdad's northern outskirts.

Pentagon officials denied responsibility for the bombing, saying there were no U.S. targets near the neighborhood. But U.S. military officials in Qatar said that U.S. aircraft targeting Iraqi surface-to-air missile launchers in a residential area in Baghdad had fired precision-guided weapons at about the same time as the bombing, possibly causing civilian damage.

In the Shaab neighborhood, the carnage spoke of the helplessness and dread that has enveloped the capital.

"Who accepts this?" shouted George Said, a mechanic whose store was littered with spilled oil, a door torn from its hinges onto the floor. "Does America like this, does Bush like this, do the American people like this? How can they accept the destruction?"

Crowds poured into the muddy, congested streets, shouting, "We will sacrifice our blood and souls for you, Saddam."

But in private, some residents complained bitterly that the Iraqi military had trucked missiles and other weapons to a grass-and-mud clearing at the neighborhood's edge. One neighbor said the trucks moved in from 11 p.m. to dawn, their movements shrouded to a degree by a two-day sandstorm that Iraqis said was the fiercest in years. Four tents and military equipment remained there today, concealed in part by trenches and dozens of industrial-size spools for cable. Down the road were at least four antiaircraft guns.

The neighbor said he blamed "both sides" for the destruction that sent shattered glass cascading through his apartment. His refrigerator and television rested against the pockmarked wall, tossed across the room by the force of the blast. Flying debris injured his mother, father, brother and sister, all of whom lived together in a cramped, two-room apartment.

"We are the simple people who get hurt. The government doesn't get hurt, but we end up getting hurt," the 35-year-old resident said. The government "is responsible for the people. They should take care of the people."

It was a day of menace in Baghdad, a capital forced to contend with around-the-clock bombing, smoke billowing from burning oil trenches that has compelled some to flee, and a sandstorm that has convinced many that divine intervention rules their fate.

On the storm's second day, the city of more than 5 million was coated in a film of dust, blown in from Iraq's deserts. The sky turned from a blinding yellow at dawn to blood-red in the afternoon. A dusk-like brown was followed by an eerie orange at nightfall. An occasional vegetable stand provided the city's few glimpses of color in its onions, tomatoes, eggplant and oranges. Rain fell throughout the day, bathing Baghdad in mud.

Cars drove with their headlights on at noon, and street lights cast a faint glow over the city streets. Residents complained of sleeplessness, some saying they had started taking Valium to ease the anxiety brought by the storms and the bombing. Few in the capital predicted that the worst was over; even fewer were willing to predict what the next few weeks would bring.

Shaab today was their worst fears made plain.

U.S. forces have, on the whole, waged their air assault on Baghdad with precision, targeting presidential palaces, government offices and intelligence headquarters since last week. At dawn, blasts shook the area that houses the Information Ministry, knocking Iraqi television off the air for several hours. But there have been errant strikes too, demolishing a student union building at Mustansiriya University, a laundry in a village outside Baghdad and clusters of homes in the neighborhoods of Adhimiya and Qadisiya.

In Shaab, the bombs struck at 11:30 a.m., a time that the streets, even in war, were crowded with mechanics, vendors of auto spare parts, customers at electric appliance stores and families sitting down to a late breakfast after a jarring night of bombing.

Residents said they heard the murmur of a bomber in a cloaked sky. Seconds later, the first explosion struck.

Abdel-Jabbar was in his workshop, putting together cardboard boxes. The blast collapsed the shop's entrance, showering the store with bricks and cinderblocks. He said the shock waves tossed cars and people several feet. One of them was Sattar, a 22-year-old friend repairing his car in the street. Sattar survived, Abdel-Jabbar said, but his legs were severed.

"Does he carry weapons of mass destruction?" Abdel-Jabbar shouted, as the sirens of ambulances, police cars and civil defense vehicles tried, in vain, to navigate traffic that had come to a standstill in the wrecked street. "Do his wife and children carry weapons of mass destruction?"

Next door, two workers had been scurrying around the Dulaimi Restaurant, preparing for lunchtime. Both were killed in an instant. The restaurant's red and blue tiles lay splintered on the sidewalk, plastic white tables and chairs were turned upside down, wires hung from the ceiling like a spider's web and its sign dangled overhead, giving perch to a bird.

Within moments, the second blast struck the other side of the street. Qais Sabah and his family of eight were sitting down to a breakfast of falafel, boiled eggs and bread. They jumped at the first explosion, then were thrown to the ground by the second.

Hours later, the 35-year-old day laborer looked out over the detritus of his house. A cracked porcelain plate that read "God" hung askew on the wall. On the sidewalk outside was the severed hand of Samad Rabai, 17, the owner of an appliance store.

"It's a crime against us," Sabah said. "There's nothing here to bomb."

Tareq Abdullah was making a halfhearted attempt to wash the dust off his white Lada sedan when the bombs struck. He was thrown several feet, then crawled to his car. He said he was desperate. His 4-year-old son, Ali, was still inside, screaming.

In the hospital, Abdullah lay in a bed with bandages covering wounds to his head, chest and both legs from flying debris. He had trouble hearing, his ears still ringing from the bomb's percussion. "I feel pain," he said, over and over.

Next to him, his brother Ahmed, wearing a soccer jersey smeared with dried blood, looked at the bed and started crying.

"Look at my brother," he said, shaking his head. "Look at my friends."

In another room, Alawi, the nickname given to young Ali by his relatives, lay in a bed with a bandage over his head. With deep brown eyes and the look of a young child struggling to make sense of disaster, he said the Americans were trying to kill his father. He pulled nervously on the threads of the blue-and-white blanket covering the cut on his shoulder, recounting his fear.

"But I'm not afraid anymore. I'm brave," he said meekly.

Hours after the attack, residents piled trucks with their belongings. One patriarch threw mattresses, red and pink blankets and pillows off a ledge to his children below, careful to keep their few belongings out of the mud and sewage. Another man carted a refrigerator, chairs, shelves and blue bedding in a pile along the street. Workers emptied a workshop of battered machinery, then slapped mortar on cinderblocks to build a wall across its door.

"We'll clean up," Sabah said. "We'll find our relatives. We have to go somewhere else. We have no place left."