Hell on Haifa Street


Pools of blood, broken glass and discarded shoes were spread across Haifa Street in Baghdad yesterday after a bomb exploded outside a police station, leaving a crater seven feet across.

The blast tore through a crowd of young men who were trying to get jobs in the police force. Forty-seven people were killed and at least 114 wounded.

Charred body parts hung from trees and birds killed by the blast lay scattered across the street in one of Baghdad’s busiest shopping districts, which has become a front line in the spreading insurrection against Iraq’s US-backed government.

The explosion was caused by a suicide bomber who blew up a car filled with artillery shells. “There was a loud explosion and suddenly my body was covered in blood,” said Yassin Hamid, 21, as he lay in a nearby hospital. “I decided to join the police to help my family.”

Mahdi Mohammed, whose barber shop was close to the centre of the explosion, said: “I could see burning people running in all directions.”

Haifa Street is on the west side of the Tigris river, in the heart of the city. With long rows of tower blocks hiding a maze of narrow alleyways and rundown mud-brick buildings, it is home to some of Baghdad’s worst criminal elements.

The blocks make it perfect for ambushes, and its residents ? many of whom are former Baathists from Saddam Hussein’s home town ? are among the country’s most implacable enemies of the US occupation forces. Saddam spent some of his formative years in this tough neighbourhood and he named the area after himself ? Saddamiyat al-Karkh ? in the 1980s after an effort at urban regeneration.

It is a frequent base for mortar attacks on the nearby heavily fortified area formerly known as the Green Zone, where US forces, Western diplomats and the interim Iraqi administration are based.

The attack is the latest of a new spasm of violence in Iraq. It demonstrates that the interim government of Iyad Allawi, set up by the US with great fanfare at the end of June, is failing to quell the insurgency or provide security for ordinary people. Further bloody proof of that failure was provided yesterday in the town of Baquba, north of Baghdad, when gunmen strafed a van arrying policemen home from work. Eleven of them and a civilian were killed, the local hospital said.

The two attacks were claimed by the Tawhid and Jihad group of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Islamic militant. A statement on an Islamic web site said: “A lion from the Brigades of Those Seeking Martyrdom succeeded in attacking the centre of volunteers for the renegade police apparatus.”

Many victims of the Haifa Street attack would not accept that they had been injured by a suicide bomber. They blamed the US. “There was an American jet flying around just before the explosion,” said Yassin Hamid. His mother, sitting by his hospital bed, added: “They are trying to reduce the number of Iraqis.” Others blamed terrorists for the attack, but accused the government and the US of not providing security. “Bush is a dog,” chanted the Haifa Street crowd. Other victims of the blast simply blamed “terrorists”. Omar Mezher Mohammed, who saw three friends killed, said: “The bombers are not true mujahedin.”

It is a measure of the level of violence in Baghdad that the car bomb was not the first explosion on Haifa Street yesterday. Taha Salem Shalash, 24, went to the police station at 7.30am looking for a job. “Three mortar bombs landed close by and the police asked us to leave,” he said. “They said there would be no interviews.” The job-seekers suspected, however, that the police might begin recruiting again and many stayed put. Some 250 men were standing in the street or waiting in cafes when the bomb exploded.

The willingness of young men to wait close to police stations, despite knowing they may be attacked, shows the desperate shortage of jobs in Iraq. At least half the population is unemployed; a quarter live on less than $2 (lbs1.10) a day. The rising level of violence in recent days makes it decreasingly likely that elections can be held as planned in January. Large areas of the country are outside government control.

The US has pledged to extend government authority but relies heavily on use of air power, inflicting heavy civilian casualties and creating a backlash of hatred. As a US military spokesman announced on Monday that it had mounted a “precision” raid on Islamic militants in Fallujah, Iraqis were watching television pictures of a Red Crescent ambulance in the city torn apart by a US bomb. It killed the driver, a paramedic and five patients.

Many of the rebel attacks are precisely targeted. Saboteurs also struck at a key junction on an oil pipeline at Baiji, north of Baghdad. The fire melted power cables, setting off a chain reaction that left the whole of Iraq without electricity. The blast came soon after damage from an earlier explosion was repaired.



Patrick Cockburn’s past columns can now be found at The I. Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).