In Iraq, Carnage, Anger and Grief
After Bombs Kill 43 in Baghdad, Broadcasters Air Citizens' Frustration

By Ellen Knickmeyer and Khalid Saffar
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 18, 2005

BAGHDAD, Aug. 17 -- In the hours after a triple car bombing in the Iraqi capital Wednesday, state television broadcast a montage of faces of random children -- some appearing solemn, some smiling, some slyly glancing up at the camera. In the background, mournful music swelled, and the faces gave way to the bright flash of a car bomb, shown in slow motion.

"They were young but were turned to pieces of flesh," the singers lamented, as the network then broadcast footage of previous attacks showing limp children, wailing men and distraught women dressed in black abayas pushing through crowds. "Oh, oh Iraq, the land of bloodshed."

The deaths of at least 43 Iraqis in the three car bombings Wednesday brought an outpouring of grief and anger rarely shown on state television, as broadcasts for the first time focused solely on the violence and call-in shows allowed citizens to voice their sorrow and frustration. The attacks targeted a police station, a crowded bus terminal and a hospital where many of the victims had been taken. Most of the victims were civilians.

"When will Iraqi blood stop being spilled?" asked a caller identified only as Um Hassan, or Mother of Hassan. As she spoke, the footage from the bombings hours earlier showed a man raising the arm of a lifeless boy.

The killings were among 54 reported across the country Wednesday, including the deaths of two U.S. soldiers in separate attacks.

In Baghdad, weeping families drove away from morgues with the coffins of loved ones killed in the blasts strapped to the rooftops of their cars. Other families searched burned hulks of buses for signs of the missing. As Iraqiya TV broadcast the scene, angry, weeping callers dialed in to the station, using the country's now ubiquitous cell phones. Call-waiting signals beeped on-air through their sobs. Martial footage of Iraq's new military and music videos of past bombings played throughout the day.

Coming in the middle of high-stakes talks among Shiite Arab, Sunni Arab and Kurdish leaders over the country's new constitution, reaction to the bombings quickly became politicized.

"We put responsibility on the occupation forces," Jaleel Musawi, a spokesman for Moqtada Sadr, a rebellious Shiite cleric and political leader, said in a statement. It accused U.S.-led forces of failing to turn over full intelligence responsibility to Iraqi forces and for allowing detained insurgents to go free.

The Iraq Islamic Party, representing the mainstream of the Sunni minority from which many insurgents are drawn, condemned the bombings, as did Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was in Baghdad to review the U.S.-led effort to quell the revolt against the U.S. presence and the government it supports.

The bombings targeted a neighborhood in eastern Baghdad where an open-air bus terminal is located, a place where crowds gather to travel to and from the predominantly Shiite south.

Witnesses said the bombs went off in the space of a half-hour. The first, a suicide car bomb, went off outside a police station across the street from the bus terminal, witnesses said.

Ten minutes later, another suicide attacker drove a car into the terminal and blew it up, according to Capt. Ibaa Abdul Hakim of the Iraqi army. Most of the deaths occurred there, Hakim said.

As policemen and bystanders scrambled to take the dead and wounded to Kindi hospital, only 200 yards away, a third car loaded with explosives detonated along the curb near the hospital's side entrance, Hakim said. The fatalities there included people wounded in the first two bombings.

"This was a well-concerted, triple-bomb attack," Hakim said.

Space in the morgue soon ran out, and emergency workers lined up corpses on the ground. When no more sheets were available to cover the dead, workers split open cardboard boxes and placed them over bodies in pools of gelling blood or dangling from gurneys.

"This is the most cowardly attack anywhere," Kassim Abdul Hadi, 47, a teacher who was traveling by bus to Baghdad on Wednesday, said from the hospital where he was being treated for wounds to his leg and abdomen. "Do they call this holy war, killing civilians in a bus terminal? They are simply criminals."

Passengers speculated that the terminal was targeted because it served mostly Shiite passengers.

"But how can we stop these attacks?" asked a woman who identified herself as Um Karim, a passenger in a bus that had just turned out of the terminal onto a main street when the third bomb exploded. "We have a saying in Arabic: 'It's hard to catch the thief if he is a member of the family.' That's our predicament."

A separate bombing in the heavily Sunni city of Fallujah killed three people, including two children, news agencies reported.

Near the northern city of Kirkuk, gunmen killed six military recruits, all cousins, authorities said.

The U.S. military reported the deaths of two soldiers. One was killed Tuesday when a roadside bomb exploded near his patrol in Baghdad. The other was hit by insurgent gunfire Monday in northern Iraq.

The bombings in Baghdad were the deadliest in weeks, and the first resulting in high casualties in days, after five months in which attacks killed thousands.

Baghdad residents, accustomed to endless cycles of attacks and lulls, had been nervously expecting a surge of bombings timed to coincide with the last stages of negotiations to craft a constitution. On Wednesday, the waiting ended.

State television for the first time cleared the day's programming and devoted morning and afternoon airtime solely to footage of the day's victims and rescue efforts, to new videos of mourning and violence, and to the call-in shows. A black band signifying mourning sliced across one corner of the screen throughout the day.

With the heat, fuel rationing and violence keeping many Iraqis off the streets this summer, the programming found a rapt and responsive audience. "These men that kill 100, 50 and 70 men a day -- have they been put to death?" a caller who identified himself as Abu Abbas asked. "How many have been put to death? How many? The National Assembly is supposed to represent the Iraqi people. All I hear is we will do this and we will do that."

Later in the day, the network interrupted the program to broadcast the arrest of four suspects in the bombings. The suspects were found with remote-control triggering devices and other materials, according to the government.

At one point during the broadcast, the anchorman sought to reassure viewers that the haggling of the parallel political talks was constructive. "It is a dialogue. They did not pull out guns and shoot each other," he said of Iraq's politicians.

At times, the state-televised outpouring of emotions seemed aimed at the country's Shiite majority, now the dominant political force. The song bewailing the killing of children closed with a mention of the 680 killing of the prophet Muhammad's grandson, Hussein, on the plains of Karbala in southern Iraq, commemorated each year in a traditional Shiite holiday of grief.

"By what right are they slaughtered?" the singers asked. "All the wounds gathered in my country. Oh, every day we have Karbala."

Special correspondent Naseer Nouri contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company