By Amit R. Paley and Saad Sarhan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, August 31, 2006
BAGHDAD, Aug. 31 -- The Yogurt Father hawks his gloopy snack every day in the city's biggest market. No exceptions.
So when an enormous bomb exploded Wednesday 20 yards away from him at Shorja market, the largest and oldest bazaar in Baghdad, and killed 27 people, including several of his friends, he spent only a half-hour tending to the wounded and clearing debris. Then he washed the blood off his hands and resumed selling yogurt.
"We are used to seeing blood and death. It's routine now," said the 50-year-old Iraqi, who is known to customers as Abu Leben -- Yogurt Father -- and to friends and family as Abu Ali -- Father of Ali, his eldest son. He stirred a big vat of curdled milk as people nearby frantically sifted through blood-soaked rubble mixed with bits of human tissue. "I helped move some bodies," he explained, "but the only thing that I care about is how to get money for my family."
He scooped out a glass of yogurt for a customer. "If I don't die today, I might die tomorrow," he said.
The bloodshed in Iraq has become so common that it barely registers for some, even on a day like Wednesday, when violence across the country killed at least 60 people despite heightened efforts by the U.S. military to clamp down on sectarian strife.
The day's first major attack occurred in the southern city of Hilla, where a bicycle rigged with explosives detonated at 8 a.m. across the street from an Iraqi army recruiting center, killing 17 recruits and wounding 39, said police Capt. Muthanna Ahmed. The bicycle exploded next to a shack that sells biscuits and soda, a hangout where dozens of recruits gather every day before they are allowed to enter the army facility.
Bloody sandals and shoes and bits of fabric littered the road. An old woman searching for her child stopped in her tracks when she apparently recognized a piece of his pajamas.
"Oh, my son, my son!" the woman wailed as she pounded her face.
The explosion sparked chaos as looters, including a number of Iraqi army recruits, ransacked cars after drivers fled in fear of further attacks, said Basim Zien of the Hilla traffic police. The police eventually shot at the looters to stop the pillaging, he said.
Police and several recruits blamed the Iraqi army for making the recruits wait outside the base to register instead of allowing them in. Hassanien Jasim, a 24-year-old recruit, said no one enlisting for the army during the rule of Saddam Hussein had to wait in the street the way recruits do now. He said he held apathetic politicians responsible for Wednesday's violence.
"Is it too much for them to take us inside so they can protect us, when though they know that the Iraqi army is targeted?" Jasim said as he lay on a stretcher in the main hospital in Hilla, 60 miles south of Baghdad, while doctors removed ball bearings from his chest. "They don't care about the people."
In Baghdad, the bomb in Shorja market detonated at about 9:45 a.m. in front of a kebab restaurant, killing 27 people and wounding 35, said Brig. Gen. Abdul Wahid Saleh of the Interior Ministry.
On the sidewalk, the blood of Hussam Abdul Kareem, 25, who was a married father of two, mixed with the peanuts and pistachios he had been selling. The henna and oil lamps sold by Um Satar, a widow responsible for 12 children, lay buried in rubble. The Yogurt Father said both were killed instantly.
"Shouldn't there be some part for the government to play in reducing these explosions?" asked Nuri Hammed, a 40-year-old teacher, after he bought a small cup of yogurt for 250 dinars, less than 20 cents. He complained that politicians promised reconciliation but didn't take effective measures to reduce violence. "This government is carrying a rose in one hand and a knife in the other hand."
Later in the day, in Baghdad's Karrada section, a bomb exploded at a gas station as a police patrol passed. "Run away from your cars! Leave the gas station!" shouted Abu Hamza, the gas station manager, as people flocked to restaurants across the street. As they did, a car parked there earlier by two men exploded, said Alaa Hussein, who owns two of the restaurants.
The explosions killed two police officers and a gas station security guard and wounded nine people, hospital officials said.
Wednesday night in Baghdad, intense clashes broke out in neighborhoods east of Sadr City, a Shiite Muslim slum controlled by radical anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Witnesses in the nearby Obaydi and Kamaliyah areas reported as many as seven loud explosions at about 9:30 p.m., followed by the sound of U.S. helicopters and fighter planes overhead. Then shooting broke out. Some streets were filled with members of the Mahdi Army, a militia controlled by Sadr, residents said.
" Allahu akbar !" blared loudspeakers on mosques in some areas after the shooting began. "God is great!"
Mohammed al-Askari, an Iraqi Defense Ministry spokesman, said Iraqi and U.S.-led forces carried out a raid in those neighborhoods and were shot at, but he would not provide any other details.
Early Thursday morning, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad also confirmed a significant operation in the area but would not elaborate.
A U.S. military official said the operation involved American forces and gunmen believed to be members of the Mahdi Army. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
In Najaf, police Lt. Muayed Shuker said a rocket fired from a neighborhood dominated by Sadr loyalists struck a nearby U.S. military base. A U.S. military spokesman said he had no information about such an incident.
The U.S. military also said Wednesday that a Marine assigned to the 1st Brigade of the Army's 1st Armored Division died Tuesday in Anbar province, a volatile stronghold for Sunni insurgents.
Despite the violence, the top U.S. commander in Iraq said he hoped Iraqi forces could take control of security in the country as early as next year without substantial help from the U.S. military.
"I don't have a date," Gen. George W. Casey Jr. said in Baghdad. "But I can see -- over the next 12 to 18 months -- I can see the Iraqi security forces progressing to a point where they can take on the security responsibilities for the country with very little coalition support."
Sarhan reported from Hilla. Special correspondents K.I. Ibrahim and Naseer Nouri and other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.