Yesterday will go down as a day of infamy for Iraqis who are repeatedly told by the US that their security is improving. Almost 200 people were killed on one of the bloodiest days of the four-year-old war, when car bombs ripped through four neighbourhoods across Baghdad, exposing the failure of the two-month-old US security plan.
In the aftermath of the blasts, American and Iraqi soldiers who rushed to the scene of the explosions were pelted with stones by angry crowds shouting: “Where is the security plan? We are not protected by this plan.”
Billowing clouds of oily black smoke rose into the sky over the Iraqi capital after four bombs tore through crowded markets and streets leaving the ground covered in charred bodies and severed limbs. “I saw dozens of dead bodies,” said a witness in Sadriyah, a mixed Shia-Kurdish neighbourhood in west Baghdad where 140 people died and 150 were injured. ” Some people were burned alive inside minibuses. Nobody could reach them after the explosion. There were pieces of flesh all over the place. Women were screaming and shouting for their loved ones who died.”
The escalation in devastating bomb attacks by Sunni insurgents against Shia civilians is discrediting the US security plan, implemented by a “surge” in American troop numbers. Launched on 14 February it was intended to give the Iraqi government greater control over the streets of Baghdad. The Mehdi Army Shia militia, blamed for operating death squads against Sunni civilians, had adopted a lower profile and avoided military confrontation with the US but that is unlikely to continue in the wake of these devastating bomb attacks. The Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is seen as being unable to defend his own people.
In the aftermath of the explosions, one man waved his arms and shouted angrily: “Where’s Maliki? Let him come and see what is happening here.” The enraged crowds throwing stones at American and Iraqi troops who arrived after the blasts also shouted: “Down with Maliki.”
The worst attack was on Sadriyah meat and vegetable market in the centre of Baghdad. It had already been the target of one of Baghdad’s worst atrocities when a suicide bomber blew up a Mercedes truck on 3 February, killing 137 people.
Some of the casualties yesterday were construction workers rebuilding the marketplace. One of the workers who survived, 28-year-old Salih Mustafa, said he was waiting for a minibus to go home when the bomb went off at 4.05pm. “I rushed with others to give a hand and help the victims,” he said. “I saw three bodies in a wooden cart, and civilian cars were helping to transfer the victims. It was really a horrible scene.”
There is no doubt that the bombs were directed at killing as many Shia civilians as possible. About half an hour before the Sadriyah blast, a suicide bomber had rammed a police checkpoint at the entrance to the great Shia bastion in Sadr City in east Baghdad. It is also the stronghold of the Shia nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The explosion killed 35 people and wounded 75, police say. Black smoke rose from blazing vehicles as people scrambled over the twisted wreckage of cars to try to rescue the wounded.
In another Shia neighbourhood, Karada, a parked car exploded, killing 10 people and wounding 15.
“The problem is that the Shia stopped killing so many Sunni but the Sunni are killing more Shia than ever,” said an Iraqi official before the attacks yesterday. He added: “If this goes on, the Shia will exact revenge. Sectarian massacres will dwarf anything we have seen before.”
The bombings came hours after Mr Maliki said that Iraqi security forces would take full control of the whole country by the end of the year. But last night, amid a torrent of public criticism, the Prime Minister ordered the arrest of the Iraqi army colonel in charge of security around the Sadriyah market.
And in another move that could weaken his position further, six ministers supporting Mr Sadr have just withdrawn from the government because of Mr Maliki’s failure to demand that the US set a timetable for the withdrawal of its troops.
The 17-million strong Shia community, the majority of the Iraqi population, is increasingly hostile to the US presence while the five million Sunni generally support anti- American armed resistance. Only the Kurds fully back the US.
Responsibility for security in Maysan province was handed over by Britain to Iraq yesterday. “Then it will be province by province until we achieve [this transfer] before the end of the year,” said Mr Maliki in a speech delivered on his behalf by the National Security Adviser, Mowaffaq al-Rubaie.
But the transfer of political or security control by the US and Britain to Iraqi authorities has always been deceptive. Iraqis believe, with some reason, that real control remains in the hands of the occupying forces. Earlier in the year, British forces blew up a police headquarters in Basra and US helicopter-borne troops tried to kidnap two senior Iranian officials visiting Jalal Talabani, the Iraqi President.
The success of the US security plan in Baghdad depended less on an additional five American brigades than in fostering a belief by Iraqis that it was providing them with security.
The Sunni insurgents and Shia militias grew in strength in the Iraqi capital in 2006 because their communities were terrified of bombers, death squads and kidnappers. The US army and Iraqi army and police could only win acceptance if they provided a superior level of security, which they are notably failing to do.
“We’ve always said securing Baghdad would not be easy. We’ve seen both inspiring progress and too much evidence that we still face many grave challenges,” Major-General William Caldwell, a US military spokesman, said.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006.