By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 9, 2007
BAGHDAD, July 8 -- Khider Walli Ahmad has nobody left. Not his wife or his 4-year-old son, not his father or mother or sister. They were killed Saturday when a suicide bomber detonated a truck packed with explosives in a crowded market.
In the rubble of their mud-brick house and small shop, Ahmad found fragments of their bodies. His 69-year-old father, who sold cigarettes and dairy products, was closest to the blast.
"What was left of my father were bits and pieces, which I and some of the neighbors collected into a bag while we wept," Ahmad, 39, said Sunday, the trauma plastered across his face. Last year, he said, Sunni militants killed his brother Ali and his nephew during a pilgrimage to the Shiite holy city of Karbala.
"And today I lost all my family," he said.
In the Shiite Turkmen hamlet of Amerli, 50 miles south of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, grief and anger mixed with bewilderment in the aftermath of one of the single deadliest attacks on Iraqis since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Almost everyone seemed to have lost relatives or friends, if not entire families.
The death toll rose to more than 140, but 20 people remain missing, police officials said Sunday. More than 270 people were injured, they added. In the previous deadliest attack, a truck bomb in March killed 152 people in the northern town of Tall Afar.
In Amerli, many residents struggled to understand why their remote, peaceful outpost was targeted. And instinctively, they blamed Sunnis linked to the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq for the carnage.
"Why can't the army and police protect us against those thugs?" demanded Ahmad, tall, thin and disheveled. He wore a traditional white robe, speckled with dried blood. In a hoarse voice, he said he was awake throughout the night, shouting and crying for his family.
"I am going to leave because I have come to hate Iraq and the religion that allows such killings," he said. "May God damn them all."
A Washington Post special correspondent on Sunday visited Amerli, nestled in a barren, desolate patch between the town of Tuz Khormato and volatile Diyala province, where U.S. forces are mounting an intense campaign to weed out al-Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni Arab extremists. On Sunday, scores of black banners mourning the dead hung on walls and houses. At security checkpoints, policemen wore black bands on their left arms and grief on their faces.
"I came in to work on my own today although I was off duty," said Emad Abdul Hussein, a policeman, as he manned a checkpoint at the entrance to the market. "But I felt it is my duty to help in securing this devastated area."
"I lost an uncle and his son, but we are not going to give up," he added.
Maj. Khalaf Abdullah, Amerli's deputy police chief, said the blast destroyed more than 50 houses, most collapsing over their inhabitants, and demolished 45 shops. It also badly damaged 20 houses and 35 vehicles.
"There is a funeral service in every house in the town," Abdullah said.
In the market, the truck bomb left a crater 12 feet deep. Shops and houses not reduced to rubble were badly charred.
The bomb exploded during the morning rush hour, when people come to the market to buy food or to take a minibus taxi to nearby Tuz Khormato or Kirkuk, officials said Sunday.
Mohammad Rasheed Barzanjy, the mayor of Tuz Khormato, said that last week, al-Qaeda insurgents threatened to attack the area because residents supported military operations around Baqubah, the capital of Diyala province.
"It is safe, secure and peaceful, and they are trying to paralyze and confuse the government with such attacks to show the world they can reach any place to prove the failure of the police," Barzanjy said of the insurgents. "But in fact they are showing the world how savage and cruel they are by targeting innocent civilians."
He then uttered the names of victims he knew: Qanbar Abdullah al-Bayati, who died along with his wife and five sons, two of whom were children, and Muhsin Shaheed Akbar, who lost four sons who were working in their workshop in the market.
"This is wholesale death that has devastated a small, quiet peaceful town, breaking the residents' self-esteem and dignity," said Taherr al-Bayati, a judge in Kirkuk who was born in Amerli.
On Sunday, local Turkmen organizations mobilized to help deliver medicine and food parcels to victims, as district officials pledged to restore electricity and water, which was disrupted by the powerful blast. One Turkmen group promised to take 150 of the wounded to neighboring Turkey for treatment.
Still, the anger and frustration were palpable. Angry crowds threw rocks at a delegation led by Hamad Hamoud Shagtti, governor of Salahuddin province, blaming officials for failing to protect the village. The delegation was forced to cut short its visit, said Barzanjy, the mayor. Many residents demanded compensation.
Zainulabideen Rustum Abdullah, 58, lost his wife, three daughters, his grandson and his daughter-in-law. He suffered burns, and shrapnel struck his head.
"We were wiped out mercilessly, and we blame the Americans, the Iraqi government, the criminals and all the politicians who brought us catastrophe and destruction," he said. "They have destroyed everything with their sectarianism and politics."
Abdul Razak Taqi al-Bayati lost a son, Qanbar, a taxi driver who was parked in the market. In the rubble, Bayati first unearthed his son's necklace, with its small pendant the shape of Iraq. Then, he found Qanbar.
"I recognized my son's hand, which was severed from the body, by the tattoo inscribed on it," recalled Bayati, 55, who had a wrinkled face and wore a dark blue traditional tunic. "When I went home, I found my home totally collapsed."
On Sunday, he was on his way to Kirkuk hospital to see his 4-year-old grandson, Sajjad. Shrapnel was embedded in his abdomen and his legs were badly burned. A few hours later, the two boarded a plane to Turkey for medical care.
Qanbar was Sajjad's father.
A special correspondent in Kirkuk and K.I. Ibrahim in Baghdad contributed to this report.