New York Times
February 5, 2007
By Damien Cave and Richard A. Oppel Jr.
BAGHDAD, Feb. 4 — A growing number of Iraqis blamed the United States on Sunday for creating conditions that led to the worst single suicide bombing in the war, which devastated a Shiite market in Baghdad the day before. They argued that the Americans had been slow in completing the vaunted new American security plan, making Shiite neighborhoods much more vulnerable to such horrific attacks.
The critics said the new plan, which the Americans have started to execute, had emasculated the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia that is considered responsible for many attacks on Sunnis, but that many Shiites say had been the only effective deterrent against sectarian reprisal attacks in Baghdad’s Shiite neighborhoods. Even some Iraqi supporters of the plan, like Hoshyar Zebari, the foreign minister who is a Kurd, said delays in carrying it out had caused great disappointment.
In advance of the plan, which would flood Baghdad with thousands of new American and Iraqi troops, many Mahdi Army checkpoints were dismantled and its leaders were either in hiding or under arrest, which was one of the plan’s intended goals to reduce sectarian fighting. But with no immediate influx of new security forces to fill the void, Shiites say, Sunni militants and other anti-Shiite forces have been emboldened to plot the type of attack that obliterated the bustling Sadriya market on Saturday, killing at least 135 people and wounding more than 300 from a suicide driver’s truck bomb.
“A long time has passed since the plan was announced,” Basim Shareef, a Shiite member of Parliament, said Sunday. “But so far security has only deteriorated.”
American officials have said the new plan will take time, but new concerns emerged Sunday about the readiness of Iraqi military units that are supposed to work with the roughly 17,000 additional American soldiers who will be stationed in Baghdad under the plan, which President Bush announced last month.
Iraqi and American military officials said the command structure of the Iraqi side had still not been resolved, although the plan is supposed to move forward this coming week.
Naeem al-Kabbi, the deputy mayor of Baghdad and a senior official loyal to Moktada al-Sadr, the powerful cleric who heads the Mahdi Army, said he believed the plan had been delayed “because the Iraqi Army is not ready.”
American military officials have not laid out a precise timeline for the security plan, and would not say if undermanned Iraqi units had delayed its start. But American officials have said Iraqi units arriving in Baghdad to fulfill their part of the new plan are only at 55 to 60 percent of their full strength.
With much of Baghdad devolving further into chaos, many Iraqis have begun to question whether the security plan has ambled along too slowly, setting up a situation in which American and Iraqi troops will be greeted with hostility rather than welcomed as protectors.
Concerns about the unintended consequences of the American security plan rippled through many levels of the Iraqi government.
“People’s expectations went up,” Mr. Zebari said. “They were hopeful, optimistic that this new surge, this new plan would provide a better life for them. And this daily killing — this bomb — they lose hope. Still the troops haven’t arrived.”
An American military official, responding to accusations that American efforts opened Shiite areas to attacks, said 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 Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki and Shiite officials loyal to Mr. Sadr. The official was not authorized to comment about the subject and spoke on condition of anonymity.
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 said in remarks carried by several news agencies.
His comments, however, came as more than a dozen mortar shells crashed on Adhamiya, a Sunni area of eastern Baghdad, in what appeared to be an act of retaliation by Shiites. At least 15 people were killed and more than 56 wounded, an Interior Ministry official said.
Clashes in western Baghdad between Sunni and Shiite militias left 7 dead and 11 wounded, and the authorities found 35 bodies throughout the city, many showing signs of torture.
Meanwhile in the streets of Sadriya, the poor, mostly Shiite area of central Baghdad where the bomb exploded on Saturday, merchants and residents struggled to contain their anger.
“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. “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.
“The government is supposed to protect us, but they are not doing their job,” he said. “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. The crater from the blast was large enough to hold a sedan; the blast threw the truck’s gnarled engine block more than 100 yards away.
As the sun rose on Sunday, the rescue effort continued with workers and relatives tugging at concrete pieces in a mad search for victims amid the piles of debris where apartments and offices once stood. Processions heavy with death moved through the area. Men lashed simple wood coffins to the top of minibuses for the long journey to cemeteries, while families in the backs of trucks wailed after collecting the bodies of relatives.
While the American military put out a statement saying that the Iraqi Army assisted at the scene, the area closest to the crater was controlled by the Mahdi Army. Between 8 and 15 men dressed in black and carrying AK-47s, waved reporters away on Sunday morning.
The scene was thick with anger directed at the Iraqi government and American military for letting the people down and allowing such a devastating attack. When asked about the “tragedy” of the blast, one Mahdi guard responded, “The only tragedy was when we voted for weak officials.”
He then pointed toward the bombed-out buildings and added, “This is the result.”
Later, when two American Humvees and an Iraqi patrol passed just after 1 p.m., one of the men in black called the soldiers “apes and cowards.”
“They’re the ones who brought us the catastrophe,” one of them 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 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, killing 20 of his workers, said that until a few weeks ago, Mahdi militiamen were more visible on the streets, checking vehicles, watching and offering to arbitrate disputes. After American and Iraqi officials arrested several top Mahdi commanders last month, he said, many of the Mahdi militants drifted into the shadows or fled.
He said their departure contributed to the recent spasm of violence in Shiite neighborhoods.
Some Shiites in the area said that the truck could have been stopped at a checkpoint, decreasing damage from its payload. Hussein Ali, 57, said Shiite militiamen might have recognized that the driver was not from the neighborhood.
“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.”
Iraqi officials, after meeting with American military commanders, are expected to announce as early as Monday that they have agreed on some of the details of the command structure for the new security plan.
American military officials say that the Iraqi officer who will lead his forces participating in the new Baghdad security effort, Lt. Gen. Aboud Qanbar, will take command on Monday and that the Baghdad plan will be carried out soon. Reporting was contributed by Wisam A. Habeeb, Qais Mizher, Khalid W. Hassan, Marc Santora, James Glanz and Iraqi employees of The New York Times from Baghdad, and Philip Shenon from Washington.