Bomb Shatters Baghdad's Storied Literary Street

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 6, 2007

BAGHDAD, Mar. 5 -- Two firemen emerged from the thick curtain of black smoke that covered the pavement on Monday, carrying a soft, shapeless corpse wrapped in a green tarpaulin.

In their path was what was left of Mutanabi Street, Baghdad's literary heart. Bookstores in ruins. Balconies torn from oatmeal-colored buildings, some still on fire. Mangled cars with cracked windshields. The sounds of weeping mingled with the smell of burned flesh, as shards of paper seemed to flutter endlessly down from the sky.

At 11:40 a.m., a car bomb exploded on this storied street, killing as many as 26 people and injuring dozens, according to police officers at the scene. It shattered an area once known for liberal ideas, an intellectual haven that in the heady days after the U.S.-led invasion pulsed with the promise of freedom.

Solemn as pallbearers, the firemen walked through the landscape of twisted metal and debris, their feet crunching shattered glass. Behind them, the tower of smoke and ash billowed above the capital. One placed the charred body on a pushcart. The other covered it with a long sheet of white paper, as if he were tucking a child into bed. As they rolled the cart up the street, a young man in a black checkered sweater and light-blue jeans ran past. Tears streamed down his face.

"Where is my family? What happened to my family?" he screamed.

For many victims, the attack brought questions about the effectiveness of a new security crackdown that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has already declared a success. Nearly three weeks after its launch, the number of violent attacks has dipped, but bombings continue to plague Baghdad.

On Monday, U.S. and Iraqi troops continued their carefully orchestrated security sweeps into the Shiite militia stronghold of Sadr City, with Iraqi forces taking a more visible role than the Americans. Meanwhile, gunmen opened fire on Shiite pilgrims, killing seven in several areas of Baghdad, police said.

"What security plan? There is no security plan," said Abu Firas al-Tai, 47, as he stared at his blue car just off Mutanabi Street. Its windows were blown out. Shrapnel had pierced the trunk.

Tai, short with round glasses, was leaving a bank after collecting his pension when the car bomb detonated. "It was a huge explosion," he said, as ambulances carrying the injured sped past. "My head and face were full of dust and ash from the burning books."

Imad Abbas, 39, a burly man with thinning hair, was in his stationery shop when he heard the explosion. Shelves and boxes fell on his head, he recalled. The electricity went off. Outside, a car burned. Then his store caught fire.

He ran upstairs to the balcony and began shouting for help. Fifteen minutes later, he was rescued by firemen. One of them placed Abbas on his back and carried him down, depositing him near a corpse covered with a blanket.

"I just returned from the dead," Abbas said.

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