At least 73 Iraqis were killed and scores wounded in suicide bomb attacks against two popular pet markets in Baghdad on Friday, shattering months of relative calm and normalcy in the capital.
The bombings, which bore all the hallmarks of previous attacks attributed to Al Qaeda-linked militants, came days after the new commander of US troops in Baghdad had warned that the terror group may strike in a more brutal way.
The markets hit are frequented mostly by poor Shiite Muslims, prompting some observers to warn they might reignite sectarian reprisal killings, which had dropped significantly in recent months. Baghdad's relative calm in recent months is attributed to the surge in the number of US troops, the stepped up operations and presence of Iraqi security forces in Baghdad, and a freeze ordered by Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr on the activities of his Mahdi Army militia.
"The vengeful terrorists are committing these crimes to give the impression that they can turn back the clock and derail our people's efforts towards reconciliation," said President Jalal Talabani in a statement that put the death toll from both attacks at about 70.
"This horrific new crime is strongly condemned and must be confronted and condemned unequivocally by all."
The mid-morning attacks occurred on a sunny and crisp winter day at the start of the two-day weekend here. They come at a time when Baghdadis have been venturing out in greater numbers each weekend, visiting open-air markets, parks, and restaurants. This freedom of movement and confidence in the security situation was boosted at the end of 2007, when the government lifted a Friday daytime curfew to guard against potential attacks on mosques, which are usually filled with prayer-goers on this day.
On this Friday, the first and deadliest attack occurred in the bustling open air Ghazil pet bazaar in the central market area of Shorja. It was carried out by a female suicide bomber dressed in an abaya - the traditional black head to toe cover worn by most Iraqi women in public over their clothing.
Iraqi security forces told the Associated Press that at least 46 people were killed and 100 wounded in the attack on Ghazil, which has been targeted several times before. In November, 15 people died in a bomb attack.
The second attack took place 20 minutes later at a bird market across from a cinema in the working class neighborhood of Baghdad Jadida, on the southeastern side of the capital. It killed at least 27 people, wounded 67, and also involved a female suicide bomber in traditional dress.
The Iraqi government-funded television station, Al-Iraqiya, reported only briefly on the attacks. It quoted the spokesman for the Baghdad security operations, Brig. Gen. Qassim Atta, as saying that the women were both mentally unstable and thereby not fully aware of what they were doing. He said they had been wired with explosives that were detonated remotely.
There was no immediate comment by the US military but Maj. Gen. Jeffery Hammond, the incoming commander of US-led multinational forces in Baghdad, warned against precisely this type of event in a briefing with reporters on Tuesday. He expected that Al Qaeda-linked militants would try regaining the initiative by using high-profile and complex attacks.
"We did a magnificent job of creating safe neighborhoods and safe markets…we put up Texas T-wall barriers in order to protect the people so that they can live…trade and run their markets," General Hammond said.
"I think Al Qaeda has discovered that because a great job as been done, they just cannot drive their VBIEDs [vehicle-borne improvised explosive devises] like they used to…we see an adjustment that is the suicide vest attack."
In fact, most of the bazaars in and around the Baghdad neighborhood of Shorja have been ringed for months now with tall concrete walls to safeguard against the threat of car bombs, which were common in the area in the past. The use of women, who are treated with great deference in a conservative and tribal society such as Iraq, to carry out attacks is an effective way of evading detection.
Qusay Ali, a resident of Baghdad's staunchly Shiite slum of Sadr City, was a regular at the Ghazil market but stopped going after the November attack. He blames Sunni extremists for the attacks because he says it's common knowledge that most of the vendors and customers at these markets are Shiite and are mostly from Sadr City.
Mr. Ali says, like many in Sadr City, he is an avid pigeon keeper and going to markets like Ghazil and other pet markets in the city is an opportunity for aficionados to meet and buy and sell birds.
"There are many young kids in Sadr City that are into this hobby. Few Sunnis are into it," he says.
He predicts another cycle of revenge killings among Sunnis and Shiites as a result of this latest attack.
Friday's attacks in Baghdad came just three weeks before the second anniversary of the destruction of a revered Shiite shrine in the city of Samarra, north of Baghdad. That bombing unleashed an unprecedented wave of sectarian violence, and is frequently cited as the onset of a "civil war" in Iraq.