BAGHDAD — The blast came at 8:20 a.m. Tuesday morning. A car bomb exploded about 100m from my hotel. The sound of the explosion and the concussion wave buckled and rattled the windows of the Internet cafe where I was doing some last minute email before S., my driver, was to pick me up at 8:30. The bomb was at the front door of the al-Karma hotel next door to mine, and shattered the guardhouse that S. and I drive through several times a day. But this morning, S., who is usually a few minutes early, and his sleek, black BMW were nowhere to be found.
Four people were injured and one boy, Ali Abbas, an 11-year-old kid who worked at the Fils Take Away restaurant selling cigarettes and chattering with anyone who would listen, died. He had brought me water on my first night in Baghdad.

A., my fixer, and I ran — along with everyone else — toward the explosion. A crater with a blackened rim about six feet across and four feet deep punctured the entrance to our compound. Two cars burned, and one was flipped over onto the other. The car on the bottom was a black BMW.

I began to frantically search for S., at the same time taking pictures and sending A. out to talk to people. The Iraqi police kept pushing us back, and from 20m or so I could feel the heat of the fire on my cheeks. The front doors of the al-Karma, a hotel that houses mainly Iraqi and Egyptian workers, were blown in and shredded.

“I work upstairs,” said Selwa Shakir, 24, a cleaning woman in the hotel. “When I heard the explosion, I didn’t know what I was doing. I found myself outside the building.”

Across the street, in the 8-story bunker are Australians, not Americans, as I was originally told. They were joined on the scene the Americans, led by Col. Mike Murray, commander of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division. The troops pushed everyone back down al-Jadiriya Road and strung concertina wire to fence off the area in case of secondary bombs. AH-58 surveillance choppers circled overhead.

We still couldn’t find S., but I kept working despite my worry. There was nothing else to do but try to record what had happened.

The two burning cars were collateral damage, as it turned out. The location of the explosive-rigged car was marked by the crater but the car itself was simply gone. Its hood lay about 100m down the road and the engine block landed in the hotel complex. The rest of the car was in pieces — none larger than the palm of my hand — all over the neighborhood. This was new.

“It’s different than other ones I’ve seen, in the type of debris,” Murray said.

A. picked up some hot shrapnel from the street. Its serrated edges bit into my fingers.

“This is from a mortar or an artillery shell,” A. said. (He was a tank commander in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War and the 1991 Gulf War.) Instead of dynamite, it seems this car bomb was rigged to use old munitions. It was a rolling IED. The more I looked, the more deadly shrapnel I found. It was easily distinguishable from the car parts which were thin and twisted.

The car itself had been a blue Volkswagen, witnesses said. Several confirmed that its license number was 28692, which is from Ramadi in the al-Anbar province, and indicative that this was probably an attack by Sunni insurgents. Many car bombs originate in Fallujah and Ramadi. The question is, who was the target?

Across the parking lot from me is an old hotel given over to private, heavily-armed contractors and Australian troops. Across the road is that 8-story bunker, a half-finished hotel that people say is the Australian embassy; no one seems to know for sure. Some people in the street said the al Jadiriya road is patrolled by the Australians early in the morning, and that those troops were the target.

Murray didn’t buy that explanation and focused on the location of the blast near the al-Karma Hotel. “As far as we can I can tell, there are no Westerners just normal businessmen in the hotel,” he said. “It seems to be a random act of terrorism against their own people.”

All I know is that I think Ali died for no good reason.

All throughout the neighborhood, there are black banners with silver and gold Arabic script written on them — the names of the Iraqis who have died by violence. Few in the West ever get to read them and learn the names of the dead. Here’s a name to remember:

Ali Abbas, 1993(?)-May 25, 2004.

In her grief, an older woman in a black abaya focused on an the biggest target:

“The Americans did it!” she wailed. “We didn’t have car bombs before, terror before,” she continued. “Everything came with the Coalition forces.

“We don’t like the occupation. Please leave, we don’t like you.”

S. finally showed up at around 6:30 p.m. We had been missing each other all day. I was glad to see him after what people cynically say is just another day in Baghdad.

6 Comments on “A Day in Hell”

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