Aftermath of a Baghdad bombing: a reporter's view

One day after a bombing killed 135 people in Baghdad's predominantly Shiite Sadriya market, correspondent Sam Dagher visited the market.

The most striking image, for me, was the old lady. She was wrapped in a black abaya, wandering through the wreckage of charred buses and mangled vehicles. She kept repeating: "This is doomsday. God is greatest."

I also saw utter anger and disbelief among the residents and shopkeepers. Government officials I had reached by telephone and heard on state television earlier in the day insisted that the capital's security plan was still on track, despite suffering the biggest breach since it was launched in mid-February.

The US and Iraqi forces may have reduced sectarian street fighting. But Al Qaeda is making its presence felt with major bombings. And the Iraqi government's comments only served to highlight the widening disconnect between the government based inside the well-guarded Green Zone and its people in what is commonly referred to by Westerners as the Red Zone.

At the open-air food market, I saw Iraqis desperately clutching to shreds of normalcy.

I entered Sadriya with my Iraqi colleagues through a pedestrian-only section that had been barricaded on both ends after a bombing on Feb. 3 that killed 137 people. The hustle and bustle resembled similar working-class markets I've seen in Amman, Cairo, or Damascus.

Vendors were hawking fresh lettuce, radishes, and tomatoes heaped up on wooden carts. Inside the arcades on both sides of the street, raw meat hung in the windows of butcher shops, pastry shops displayed enormous trays of syrup-drenched sweets, and the smell of grilled kabobs wafted from the many restaurants.

I saw defiant banners signed by the local branch office of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Construction laborers were back working Thursday, rebuilding shops destroyed in February's bombing.

In one shop, Abu Ali was busy preparing round meat balls known as kubbah.

"What happened yesterday was a catastrophe. The security plan is working in some areas of the city, but not here," he told me. "But I must work to feed my children; we have no other source of income."

His business partner Abu Jassim nodded in agreement. He had been through this once already. He pulled his shirt back, displaying wounds on his shoulder sustained in the February bombing.

At the end of the street and beyond white-painted barricades, I stepped into a panorama of destruction.

The entire square was covered in soot, and hundreds of people were gathered around a crater. Behind them, there was an outer ring of burned car and bus skeletons. Revered Shiite leaders, Imam Hussein and the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, stared down from giant posters on the walls.

Most of those killed Wednesday were laborers working in the market, pushing carts and running errands. They had boarded buses that were going to transport them home after a hard day's work. Most were going back to Jameela, a neighborhood within the Sadr City slum. They earned on average 10,000 dinars ($8) a day.

I walked past the crater crowd and into one of the destroyed shops on one side of the square, known to most as Al Nahda.

Jaber Saleh, an elderly bespectacled man, sobbed as he sat amid the ruins of his hardware store. His door was reduced to a surreal sculpture of twisted metal. Emptied boxes of nails and dented gallon paint cans were scattered on the floor.

"We were strangled by Saddam and now this," said Mr. Saleh as tears rolled down his wrinkled cheeks. He put his hands around his neck to make the point.

His helper, Aqeel Shouli, told him to calm down.

"All the leaders are stealing, no one is clean, and we are dying," resumed Saleh.

He claimed that he'd seen policemen at checkpoints near the market were sometimes bribed to let through pickup trucks filled with heaps of vegetables or boxes without checking them.

He then pointed to the other side of the square.

"That road leads to Al-Fadhil. The Americans were there two hours before the blast and arrested people, but still they come from there to kill us," said Salih referring to a predominantly Sunni Arab area adjacent to Sadriya that is the scene of frequent clashes.

Mr. Shouli interrupts him to say, "the security plan is a failure, full stop."

Back in the square Amna Sadeq a Shiite Kurd curses Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his government and parliament speaker Mahmoud al-Mashahdani, using words that are not fit to print.

"They have done nothing for us. They should make way for more competent people," she shouts.

At a bakery shop on another end of the square, Zaki Hashim, sits behind the counter. His face is bandaged.

"I was just handing bread out the window to a customer when a flame hit my face," he said.

He and all the other bakery shop workers are from the southern city of Nasariyah. They work in Baghdad and go back to their families once a month. They tell me they will remain in Baghdad despite the bombing and despite losing their friend three days ago to sectarian murder.

The dead man's photo is pinned to a giant poster of Imam Hussein behind the counter. Hussein ibn Ali is revered as the third Imam by Shiites, the grandson of Muhammad.

"The security forces are infiltrated and they even bombed the parliament, what do you expect," Mr. Hashim told me.

We had to wait in bakery shop until a funeral procession made its way through square. And faithful to Iraqi custom, some of those in the entourage were firing shots in the air.

Later, a trusted Interior Ministry adviser that often talks to me, without any of the official spin, agreed with the baker's assessment.

He said Iraqi forces are nearly helpless in the face of car bombs and suicide bombs. Their job was doubly made difficult by the fact that their ranks were infiltrated by insurgents, militias, and militants.

He nonetheless said the government needed to give the appearance it was making headway and winning through the media. "We have had some success in controlling roadside bombs and sectarian murders, so that's good and we need to say that loudly. It's a media war. The other side wants to grab the headlines with the mayhem its unleashing," he said.

Indeed, a report of the Sadriya bombing on state-owned Iraqiya television Wednesday night was followed by a statement from the spokesman of the Defense Ministry Mohammed al-Askari saying; "there may be bombs here and there, but the security plan is working."

After we left the Sadriya market, we saw municipal workers painting idyllic scenes of rolling pastures and galloping horses on a row of blast walls on Saadoun Street in the heart of Baghdad.

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