Suicide Blasts hit Green Zone


A duststorm known as ajaj has settled over Baghdad.

The hazy building in the background is about 30 meters away.

©2005 Christopher Allbritton

BAGHDAD—We woke today to the muted sounds of thumps and booms. One big one, followed by a smaller one. Then mortars flew over our home. It was another attack on the Green Zone, and it killed two people.

The first explosion was a car bomb that hit the fortified complex’s entrance that civilians, journalists and even National Assembly members often use to get inside. Many a time I’ve gone through the maze of blast walls, tank traps, concertina wire, HESCO barricades and ID checkpoints thinking that each time was a point of vulnerability. Cars from Jumhuriya Bridge and from the direction of Haifa Street approach the small intersection, often driving right up to the foot of the blast walls.A small contingent of Iraqi and U.S. troops, who sit atop an M1-A1 Abrams battle tank, man the entrance.

The second boom was a suicide bomber who rushed into the crowd that gathered following the first explosion and blew himself up. There are reports that a third bomber was possibly wounded and apprehended before he could deliver his deadly payload.

Today is July 14, the anniversary of the 1958 revolution that overthrew the British-installed monarchy. On July 17, the Ba’ath Party will somehow celebrate its 1968 coup that brought it to power. It probably won’t be good.

There is a rumor, from the Iraqi cops, that six (6) car bombs are cruising my neighborhood looking to attack convoys of various stripes. The Americans are favored targets, of course, but the insurgents would probably settle for Abdul Aziz al-Hakim of SCIRI or President Jalal Talabani of the Kurdish PUK, both of whom are my neighbors. (Mixed blessing, that. On the one hand, Badr militiamen and PUK pesh merga keep the neighborhood relatively calm. On the other hand, big freakin’ targets abound for the bombers.)

Topping off the general feeling of unease and malaise is the ajaj, or duststorm, that seems to have settled on Baghdad as a permanent home since about two weeks ago. It fills the air so completely, that even things 20 meters away look a bit hazy. The light streaming through my windows has to battle through the dust, and it’s coming through a bloodied orange color. It looks like dusk out, but it’s only 2:30 in the afternoon. Hell, it looks like 2:30 in the afternoon on Mars.

The dust itself sneaks into every crack and opening and coats everything with a talcum-fine covering of grime. The upside, Iraqis believe, is that it puts a lid on the temperature. Maybe that’s true, but it’s still damn hot, like a kiln, with no wind to stir the air. 41 degrees C (106 degrees F) in the shade is still brutal, and everyone is trying to lay low and avoid going outside. It’s supposed to hit 48 degrees C (119 degrees F) today and 51 degrees (124 degrees F) on Monday. Jeebus.

Not that there’s much need for me to go outside right now. My attempts at meeting with various members of the Constitutional Committee for a story I’m doing for TIME have run into lots of busy people who can’t take time to meet with a pesky reporter. Bother.

The bright spot was yesterday when our old housekeeper, Talal Abu Karam, 50, stopped by. Back in May, he and one of our interpreters, Salahdin (Captain Salah) Mahmoud, 47, were caught in between two American convoys on the road near Ibn Taimiyah, a Salafist mosque in Baghdad. An IED blew their car up, seriously injuring the two of them. While my colleague, Aparasim “Bobby” Ghosh, handled the local medical arrangements, I handled the Jordanian side of the issue, and even flew with Capt. Salah to Amman to make sure he got into King Hussein Medical City all right. (No slam on Iraqi doctors, who are quite capable, but their hospitals just don’t have the equipment or supplies to do more than WWI-style battlefield medicine. Salah would have lost his hand if we hadn’t flown him, at the magazine’s expense, to Amman.) I didn’t write about it at the time because the magazine was working on a story about it, and after that I went on vacation.

Anyway, Abu Karam came by yesterday to visit. He looked good. The deep gashes to his legs, arms and neck were healing nicely and he seemed relaxed. But he said he still suffers “terrible fear” whenever he hears loud noise. He described the ordeal of watching the convoys grind to a halt as they got tangled together, and then a loud noise and blackness. While his car burned and Capt. Salah was unconscious and bleeding in the seat next to him, the Americans and Iraqi police stood safely back, fearful of other bombs. Abu Karam managed to pull Capt. Salah out of the car, while he bled from a deep gash near his jugular—”My blood flowed like water,” he said. The children who sold gasoline from nearby roadside stands rushed forward, not to help but to steal, he said. They tried to take money, phones and anything else they could get their hands on from the car, from their bodies. Abu Karam was conscious enough to attempt to shoo them off.

Through the smoke, Abu Karam saw Iraqis coming toward them. While the Iraqi police hung back, a brave fellow citizen rushed forward to pull the men into his car and drive them to Yarmouk Hospital, saving their lives. Abu Karam said he didn’t know who he was, and that their rescuer didn’t stay around after getting them to the hospital. “Allah sent him to save us,” he said.

It’s hard to disagree with that. Whoever he was, I’m grateful to him. Abu Karam and Capt. Salah are valuable members of our team, and incredibly brave to work for a western news organization when doing so marks them for attacks. Incredibly, Abu Karam is ready to come back to work, but he can’t yet. He still has to recover more and he continues to take anti-biotics and other injections because the hospital only bound his wounds and stopped the bleeding. They never gave him shots for tetanus or anything else. Yet another problem with supplies in the hospitals.

While it was good to see Abu Karam, and he seemed glad to see us, his appearance was a reminder of the random violence that strikes this benighted place. His PTSD, for which he won’t get treatment because of the not unreasonable fear that the psychiatrist will consider him crazy and institutionalize him, is a common burden these days. For all of us, even, to some degree. This isn’t a normal place to live or work, of course, and I realize that. I have a choice, however. I can leave. I can get therapy for trauma, which I’ll surely need at some point. Abu Karam and millions of other Iraqis can’t. Sadam’s era may have been a prison regime, but after the fall of Baghdad and the absence of WMD, the Bush administration promised so much to the Iraqi people: democracy, liberation, safety… And yet again, they’re caged by The Fear. And there are still very few escape hatches for them.

Related link: Heart of Darkness. (I wrote this more than a year ago, after I returned to Iraq. In some ways things are better—I’m cautiously optimistic about the coming constitution—in other ways things are the same or worse—power shortages and no shortage of violence.)

In other, geeky news, I just discovered Technorati tags. (Yeah, yeah, I know…) Anyway, here’s a link to all the Technorati entries for the “Iraq” tag. Color me behind the times in blogging trends.

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