At least 72 people were killed in Baghdad this weekend when two female suicide bombers, each wearing long black cloaks to conceal explosives strapped to their bodies, blew themselves up at two bird markets.
The attacks were the deadliest in the Iraqi capital since 30,000 more US troops flooded into the centre of the country last spring.
People crowding around cages and boxes containing doves, pigeons, eagles and falcons at the popular Ghazil market in the city centre were torn apart by a bomb that was almost certainly the work of al-Qa’ida.
The bodies of victims, 45 dead and 82 injured, lay amid the shattered stalls and scorched carcasses of dead birds. Twenty minutes later, a second female bomber killed 27 people and wounded 67 at a market in the south-eastern suburb of Jadida.
There were unconfirmed reports that the bombers were both mentally impaired and their explosives were detonated remotely.
Al-Qa’ida has mounted a series of attacks in the past week, mostly targeting leaders of the Sunni tribal militia, al-Sahwah, which opposes al-Qa’ida. The bombing of Ghazil, in a predominantly Shia part of the city, will also have been aimed at provoking Shia retaliation against Sunni Muslims, who might then look again to al-Qa’ida for protection.
The Ghazil market takes place every Friday and is primarily for people who keep pet birds. This is common among Baghdadis, often very poor, who lavish care on their animals. There are also dogs for sale and for protection, as well as tropical fish in tanks and the occasional snake, monkey or exotic birds such as parrots.
Since the market is on one side of a wide street, it is impossible to protect from the crowds who visit it, and it has been attacked three times in the last year.
Al-Qa’ida has increasingly been using women as suicide bombers because they are never searched by male police officers men or soldiers, and there is a shortage of women to do the job in Iraq’s overwhelmingly male security forces.
The atrocities show that al-Qa’ida is still a powerful force with many recruits willing to kill themselves, and is backed by an organisation with intelligence, explosives and the means to detonate them. In recent weeks, it has been targeting al-Sahwah leaders and has often succeeded in penetrating their security. Last week, a car bomb exploded next to the house of Abu Marouf, an al-Sahwah leader commanding 13,000 men, in the village of Khan Dari, between Baghdad and Fallujah.
When I met him four days earlier, he was surrounded by guards and chose which of his many vehicles to travel in at the last moment to prevent assassination. Even so, al-Qa’ida was able to get a bomb close to his home and wounded four of his guards.
Baghdad was a very fearful city even before yesterday’s attacks and will now be more so.
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. His forthcoming book ‘Muqtada! Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia revival and the struggle for Iraq’ is published by Scribner in April.