'Death Square' Blast Kills 70 Iraqi Laborers

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 13, 2006

BAGHDAD, Dec 12 -- They arrived Tuesday morning at a place where sudden death intersects with life. They were mostly young men from Basra, Nasiriyah, Amarah and other towns across Shiite-dominated southern Iraq. At a time when men their age were joining Shiite militias or criminal gangs, they sought something more elusive in the new Iraq: jobs.

In Tayaran Square, about a mile from the fortified Green Zone, the day laborers waited for work at the going rate of $10 a day, paltry by Baghdad standards. In recent months, there had been two bombings here, killing several people. Local residents called the place Death Square. Yet scores of men came.

"They came in order to live," said Sadiq Ali, the short, stocky owner of the Salaam Cafe, where many of the young men had their breakfast tea.

About 7 a.m., a red Chevrolet Malibu truck pulled up at the edge of the square, witnesses said. As the men gathered around, it exploded, killing 70 and injuring more than 230. Others said they heard a second blast at about the same time. The bombing was the deadliest assault since car bombs and mortar shells killed more than 200 people in the Shiite slums of Sadr City on Nov. 23.

Tuesday's attack illustrates the immense challenges that lie ahead as the United States promotes an effort to create thousands of jobs in Iraq. Many Iraqi leaders have called for such programs since U.S.-led forces invaded in Iraq in 2003.

"It's a bit late, as usual," said Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish legislator. "They should have done this three years ago. In this country, they have spent so much money on security without results. If they had spent one-tenth of that on creating jobs, more projects and fighting unemployment, things would have been better now."

In today's Iraq, the violence is often directed at the economic foundations of society. Insurgents have detonated car bombs in crowded bazaars and factories and attacked minibuses carrying company employees. Criminals have kidnapped wealthy businessmen for ransom and robbed banks. Even generators that provide electricity to whole communities have been blown up.

Senior U.S. military commanders now say that a military solution alone will not stem the sectarian violence plaguing Iraq. Initiatives to boost the nation's anemic economy, they say, must become part of their arsenal.

On Tuesday, Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the departing operational commander of the Multinational Corps in Iraq, said he was frustrated that of an initial $18.4 billion in reconstruction funds allocated by Congress, none had been spent to boost Iraq's agriculture industry.

"Not only could Iraq feed itself, but it could feed large portions of the region and have goods and services to export," Chiarelli told reporters.

He expressed pride in some efforts, specifically a U.S. date palm spraying program in which helicopters sprayed thousands of acres of trees with pesticides to eradicate insects that had caused major damage. Iraq once produced roughly 30 percent of the world's dates, its second-biggest export after oil. Today, the date industry is showing signs of recovery.

"Those are the kinds of things that are small victories, probably kind of float in under the radar, but I think over time can have a cumulative effect that can really start to see the level of the violence go down and get people thinking about something else than whether their neighbor is Sunni or Shia," Chiarelli said.

But as recently as September, date farmers in Baqubah complained that sectarian violence had driven families out of villages and that gunmen had ambushed farmers.

All 20-year-old Khalid Nasser wanted was a job. Several days ago, he traveled from the southern city of Basra to seek his fortune in Baghdad. He stayed at the Mustafa Hotel, down the road from Death Square, where dozens of day laborers resided. "They came because they were starving," said Salih Abbas, the tall, burly owner of the hotel.

Nasser's days were spent working, even though he knew of the risks of lingering in the square each morning. His 13 relatives back in Basra depended on him. "I needed the money," said Nasser, a slim, fashionable young man who wore a New York Yankees ski hat.

On Tuesday morning, as he sipped tea, he watched his foreman walk toward the square, where the pickup had pulled up.

"It was a huge explosion," said Mohammed Jabbar Yousef, 37, a shopkeeper whose store is just across the street from the blast site. " People were running in every direction. They were clutching their heads, legs and hands. There was blood everywhere."

Nasser was thrown to the ground unconscious. When he woke up, he saw a huge crater. The left side of his head was bleeding. His right leg was injured. His foreman's body, he said, was "cut into two pieces."

Two hours later, Nasser limped into the Salaam Cafe. His head was bandaged. He joined a group of men, some of whom spoke in casual tones about the bombing.

"We get used to death," said Ali, the owner. "Death is in the hands of God. What can we do?"

"They are targeting the Shia," Abbas said, shaking his head in disgust.

Outside, the sound of hammers filled the air. Shopkeepers were putting their shattered doors back into place. On the street, men washed away the blood, turning the water maroon. Women in black abayas were shopping. Minibus drivers were hailing customers.

Yousef, the shopkeeper, had picked up his tumbled wall of goods and was back in business. He expressed sympathy for the day laborers. "I have a family to feed," he said as a customer entered.

For the most part, life had returned to normal on Death Square, save for one soul sitting in a coffee shop, pondering his future. "I will take my brother and go back to Basra," Nasser said. "I will not return."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company