Sunday, February 04, 2007

After Deadly Blast in Iraq, Shiites Assail U.S. Policy

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Feb. 4 — Naeem Al-Kaabi, Baghdad’s deputy mayor, nodded toward the gunfire outside his seventh floor office, a few hundred yards from the market where a one-ton truck bomb killed at least 130 people on Saturday and wounded hundreds more. The shots, he said, signaled another body — another son, another daughter — being carried from the rubble.

“The terrorists chose this spot three months ago and again yesterday so they could kill as many people as possible,” said Mr. Kaabi, a Shiite from Sadr City. “Trucks are not even allowed in the small alleys of the market. I wonder how the truck made it in.”

It was a question that traveled through much of Baghdad today, in the wake of the deadliest single bomb blast since the American invasion in 2003. Shiites in particular came prepared with an answer. They said the looming American-Iraqi security plan for Baghdad had weakened the Mahdi army, the Shiite militia loyal to the militant cleric Moktada Al-Sadr, emasculating the Shiites’ only reliable source of security.

Instead of making the city safer, they said, recent American efforts have opened Shiite areas to bombs that have left more than 450 dead since Jan. 16.

“A long time has passed since the plan was announced,” Basim Shareef, a Shiite member of Parliament, said today. “But so far there security has only deteriorated.”

An American military official, responding to the Shiite accusations, said that American checkpoints around eastern and central Baghdad last October seemed to reduce the number of car bombs until the checkpoints were removed because of objections from Sadr officials and Prime Minister Nuri Kamal Al-Maliki. Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, the American military spokesman in Iraq, called for patience as the new security plan rolls out.

“Give the government and coalition forces a chance to fully implement it,” he told news agencies.

His comments, however, came as more than a dozen mortar shells crashed on Adhamiya, a Sunni Arab area of eastern Baghdad, in what appeared to be an act of retaliation from Shiites. At least seven people were killed and more than 35 were wounded.

And in the streets of Sadriya, the poor, mostly Shiite area of central Baghdad where the deadly bomb exploded Saturday, residents and merchants struggled to control their anger and grief.

“I saw with my own eyes young children flying from the windows of the apartments on top of the shops when the explosion arrived,” said Haydar Abdul Jabbar, 28, a car mechanic who was standing near a barber shop when the bomb exploded, sending up a plume of smoke several stories high. “One woman threw herself out of the window when the fire came close to her.”

Mr. Abdul Jabbar said he rushed to collapsed buildings, trying to help the wounded, but found mainly hands, skulls and other body parts. At one point, he discovered the remains of his close friend, who was engaged to be married.

“How would you feel if you were in this position,” he said today. “The government is supposed to protect us, but they are not doing their job. I watch the TV and see the announcements on the imminent implementation of the security plan. Where is it for God’s sake?”

“I wish they would attack us with a nuclear bomb and kill us all,” he added, “so we will rest and anybody who wants the oil — which is the core of the problem — can come and get it. We can not live this way anymore; we are dying slowly every day.”

The truck exploded around dusk on Saturday at a market flush with crowded food stands. Today, the crater from the blast looked large enough to hold a sedan, and the truck’s gnarled engine block sat more than 100 yards away, tossed like a pebble despite its weight.

The rescue effort continued today with workers and relatives tugging concrete in a mad search for victims amidst the piles of collapsed apartments and office buildings. Processions heavy with death moved through the area: Men lashed simple wood coffins to the top of mini-buses for the long journey to cemeteries, while families in the back of trucks wailed after collecting the bodies of relatives at a city morgue.

While the American military put out a statement saying an Iraqi Army unit helped secure the bomb site, the area closest to the bomb crater was controlled by the Mahdi Army. About 8 to 15 men dressed in black, carrying AK-47s, waved reporters away this morning and again in the afternoon.

When two American Humvees and an Iraqi patrol passed just after 1 p.m. local time, one of the Iraqi men in black called the soldiers “apes and cowards.”

“They’re the ones who brought us the catastrophe,” one of the Iraqis said. “If they were not here, such a thing wouldn’t happen to us.”

Mr. Abdul Jabbar, the car mechanic, was one of many Iraqis today who said that the American military would have been better off leaving the Mahdi Army in charge of Shiite neighborhoods.

Uday Ahmed, 31, a Sunni whose three restaurants at the market were obliterated by the blast, along with 20 of his workers, said that until a few weeks ago, Mahdi militiamen were more visible on the streets, checking vehicles, watching, offering to arbitrate disputes. After American and Iraqi officials arrested several top Mahdi commanders last month, he said, many of the Mahdi officers drifted into the shadows or fled.

He said he believed the increased violence in Shiite neighborhoods was connected to their departure.

“The Jaish al-Mehdi are like protectors, but with the announcement of the start of the security plan the Americans really chased them, so they withdrew from these places and now we don’t see them,” he said. “They don’t want to confront the Americans.”

He acknowledged that nothing may have stopped the truck bomb from killing dozens. Huge blasts have killed scores in Baghdad long before the American security plan was announced.

Yet some Shiites in the area said the truck could have been stopped at a checkpoint, decreasing damage from its payload. Hussein Ali, 57, said that Shiite militiamen were neighborhood volunteers who let drivers pass only if they recognized them.

“They don’t have any system or apparatus to check the cars,” he said. “But they know from looking at the faces who is supposed to come to Sadriya to bring vegetables or fruits. They have a relationship with the merchants.”

Mr. Kaabi , the deputy mayor and a senior Sadr official, said the American military, with the approval of the Iraqi government, has made an enemy of a group that could have been a partner. Nearly three years after bloody battles against Americans in the southern city of Najaf, the Mahdi Army no longer wanted to fight, he said. They simply wanted to defend and control their own sect’s areas.

“If the Mahdi were given the freedom to move, they could have coordinated with the Iraqi Army and the police,” Mr. Kaabi said. “They could have made it safe.”


No comments: