BAGHDAD — The Iraqi capital is no stranger to bombs, but this shopping street in central Baghdad bears a disproportionate share of their misery.
The two-mile stretch that hugs the eastern bank of the Tigris River has been bombed three times this year, a number security forces say has been kept down by frequent road closures.
The worst attack, in July, was the most deadly single suicide bombing the city has ever seen. It killed more than 300. The street was crowded with shoppers preparing to celebrate the end of Ramadan, and the bomb was crafted to direct its blast out to the sides, targeting shop fronts and stalls.
This neighborhood, Karrada — a majority Shiite area, and Baghdad’s commercial hub — is a prime target for the Islamic State. Upmarket outlets sell perfume, makeup and jewelry, while stalls on the sidewalk sell everything from clothes, shoes, watches and fake Gucci belts to fruit and vegetables. It’s the home neighborhood of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, and its coffee shops draw a crowd of intellectuals and artists each night.
In the days ahead of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, which started Monday, the street would normally be packed with people stocking up on clothes and gifts or gathering at cafes and restaurants. But after a bombing last week killed 10 people, concrete blast walls at both ends block traffic, and at a time of festivity, Karrada is mourning once more.
With no other vehicles allowed, blue-and-white buses ferry people up and down. Children make the most of the lack of traffic to ride hoverboards and bicycles down its streets, but their play doesn’t hide the fact that this is a neighborhood on edge.
Terrorized residents report any sign of suspicious activity to the police. Taking pictures on a mobile phone is enough to result in a person being be flagged and pulled aside for questioning by the police.
But many want the street to open again.
“It needs to reopen so the wheel of life and death can go on,” Jaafar Fadel, 52, said as he worked at the sidewalk stand where he sells pickles.
He tried to recall some of the bombings that he had witnessed in his 12 years working on the street. “The last one was just there,” he said, pointing to a parking lot opposite. “Then the huge one down there,” motioning farther down the street with hands stained yellow from the turmeric used in his pickling mix.
He loses track, then gestures to the road nearby. “A while back there was a big one just there. I flew 20 foot through the air.”
But he brushed it off: “That one wasn’t that big.”
In the 13 years since the U.S.-led invasion, the bombings have become a factor of life. Few here haven’t been touched by death.
“It’s almost impossible to find someone who hasn’t lost a loved one,” said Omran al-Khafaji, the head of the local council. His brother lost his legs in a blast in 2007; a nephew died in another three months later.
He talks in the office of his fellow council member Sheikh Sabah Mehdi al-Obeidi, whose family has lived here for eight generations. On the wall behind him is a picture of his son playing basketball; he died in a double bomb blast just outside.
Karrada is a majority Shiite area but was known for its religious diversity. Many of Baghdad’s Jews once lived here alongside a large Christian community. But over the years minorities have shrunk. The Jews have long disappeared, and Christians, too, have slowly emigrated. A 2010 attack on Karrada’s Our Lady of Salvation Church, when gunmen affiliated with Islamic State’s predecessor massacred 58 worshipers at Mass, added momentum.
After the July bombing, the road was closed for nearly a month and a metal arch was installed to scan vehicles and help detect explosives. But the latest car bomb drove straight through it, Khafaji said. Still, he wants the roadblocks lifted, describing them as a “siege.”
“They are suffocating the neighborhood,” he said. “But Karrada will never die.”
It’s a phrase often repeated here. In Ridha Alwan, the street’s most famous coffee shop, Ahmed Ridha Alwan, the son of the owner, agreed.
“The area is sick, but it will never die,” he said. “It may be in confusion, but it’s a matter of time before it will be back the way it was. A few days.”
On a table nearby, Ahmed Hatif, who wrote a famous 1990s Iraqi television drama, sat with friends.
Before the group set out for Karrada Dakhil, some had reservations.
“Abu Rashid was saying it was dangerous,” he said, indicating a friend. “I said the street is blocked to traffic, so it will only be a suicide bomber, not a car bomb. We’ll probably only be injured, let’s go get injured.”
Across the road, despite the bombings, a new cafe just opened — Coffee & Book. Young people sit and work on Apple MacBooks.
“There is an insistence of the people here to live,” Hatif said.
Mustafa Salim contributed to this post.