Baghdad residents refuse to believe evidence indicating local insurgents mounted attack
AHMAN Mohammad, his chubby, 20-year-old face scarred with burn marks, his arms charred to the bone, lies on a blood-stained bed at Karkh Hospital 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."
On the site of the explosion near a police recruiting station that killed dozens, bodies and remains of the dead were hauled away. Despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary, witnesses and residents blamed the United States for the attack.
"This was a peaceful, modest lower-middle-class neighbourhood where everyone cared about everyone," raged Hossein Ali Hossein, 41, a train driver who was sitting in a tea shop when the explosion occurred.
"I was born here," he said. "This explosion has changed everything in this neighbourhood forever."
Hours earlier, Iraqi men had crowded around a police recruiting station. Carrying red and blue folders familiar to those navigating Iraq’s bureaucracy, they were trying to apply for jobs with the new police force.
Many had retired to the comfort of a teahouse to avoid the sun and possible attacks on the recruiting station. It was at the teahouse that the explosion struck.
At the scene near the police building in Haifa Street, a Baghdad area known as a haven for guerrillas and criminals, there was a nauseating odour of burnt flesh, and streaks of blood covered the streets and pavements.
The blast killed at least 47 people, making it the deadliest single attack in the Iraqi capital in six months.
Grieving and tearful civilians, along with emergency workers, collected corpses and body parts, including a severed head that lay near one of the 15 or so shops crushed by the explosion.
"There were some kids playing billiards," said Ehsan Adnan, a distraught 38-year-old who runs a music shop badly damaged in the blast. "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."
He threw his broken drums and trumpets across his tiny shop. "Who can accept this?" he bellowed. "Does Jesus accept this? Does Moses accept this?"
US Apache helicopters hovered above the chaotic scene, which some were attempting to turn into a political rally. "Down with Allawi, down with Bush," one man chanted. Graffiti on the building next to a local mosque spelled out "Long Live Bin Laden".
"We blame the occupation forces and the Iraqi interim government for this explosion," said Abdul Fareed, a resident of the area.
"We ask them to remove this police facility from this area because it’s a densely populated area."
Some said a US helicopter had launched an air strike on the crowd, just as it had bombed Iraqis standing atop a burning Bradley fighting vehicle in nearby Haifa Street on Sunday. "It was an American rocket, American rocket," young men screamed. "It was the Americans."
But the cheap, unpolished shrapnel from the explosion indicated clearly that it was Iraqi-made ordnance, most likely leftovers from deposed Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s arsenal packed into a car, the style favoured by Iraq’s suicide bombers.
Some bystanders shook their heads in disgust at those who blamed the attack on the US instead of the insurgents.
"The man eating that sandwich died," said Allah Hamas al-Tamimi, 31, pointing to a fried chickpea sandwich on the bench behind his cart.
He said he helped to carry at least 40 wounded, loading them into passenger cars and police lorries for the short trip to Karkh hospital.
"Some call them Wahabbis; others resistance. Some say the Americans are behind it," Mr Tamimi said. "I call them terrorists. They kill by the dozen. Is this human?"
In addition to yesterday’s bomb attack, 11 police officers and one civilian were killed in a drive-by shooting in the city of Baquba, 60 kilometres north of Baghdad.
The attacks fuelled a sense of frustration and fear among those hired to protect and serve Iraqis.
"These operations are carried out by people using the latest techniques in killing people," said Brigadier General Amar, who pleaded that his last name not be published for fear that he would be targeted by the insurgents.
"If it was in our capacity to stop such things before they happened, I would even sacrifice myself for them."
Police officer Ra’ad Tawfik Hussuni, 44, said he was at a nearby garage having his car repaired when the bomb went off. He rushed out to help the victims.
"Innocent people who need jobs were killed," Mr Tawfik said. "The government can’t control the saboteurs. The police are not in control."
It had started out as a quiet, ordinary day, the capital’s stifling summer having at last given way to a comfortable breeze. Mohammad, 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 mother’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 mum didn’t want me to join the police," says Mohammad. "She said it was too dangerous. She was right. But what could I do? We’re poor."
In the hospital, Massoud Ahmad, 24, lay moaning on his bed. The bomb blasts had seared the flesh off his legs, which were now 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 said. "I was standing in line, all of a sudden there was an explosion and I couldn’t feel anything," he said. "I fainted and I was in an ambulance."
In another corridor, an old woman sat on the ground and wept softly.
"No, no, no," a middle-aged man gently cried as his unmoving son, face covered in a bloody white sheet, was wheeled away toward the mortuary.
A shaken Amar Safar, deputy health minister, shook his head as he scanned the hospital. "Look at the dead body," he said angrily. "That’s an Iraqi. If they are fighting for Iraq and the people of Iraq, then why are they attacking the Iraqis?"