Two mentally disabled women strapped with remote-control explosives – and possibly used as unwitting suicide bombers – brought carnage to two pet bazaars, killing at least 99 people.
It was the deadliest day since Washington flooded the capital with extra troops last spring.
The co-ordinated blasts – coming 20 minutes apart in different parts of the city on Friday – appeared to reinforce US claims that al-Qaida in Iraq may be increasingly desperate and running short of able-bodied men willing or available for such missions.
However, they also served as a reminder that Iraqi insurgents are constantly shifting their strategies in attempts to unravel recent security gains around the country. Women have been used in ever greater frequency in suicide attacks.
The twin attacks at the pet markets could also mark a disturbing use of unknowing agents of death.
Brigadier General Qassim al-Moussawi, Iraq’s chief military spokesman in Baghdad, said the women had Down’s Syndrome and may not have known they were on suicide missions. He said the bombs were detonated by remote control.
Today dozens of charred bodies covered with canvas tarps lay in an alley outside a nearby hospital morgue. Weeping relatives loaded the bodies into simple wood coffins and strapped them atop minivans for transport to cemeteries. A teenage boy was curled up in the back of a pickup truck, moaning over the coffin of a dead friend.
In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the bombings prove al-Qaida is “the most brutal and bankrupt of movements” and will strengthen Iraqi resolve to reject terrorism.
Iraqi officials raised the death toll to 99 today, with 62 killed in the first bombing at the central al-Ghazl market and 37 others killed about 20 minutes later at the New Baghdad area pigeon market. The police and Interior Ministry officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to release the information.
Police said one of the women wearing the bombs sold cream in the mornings at the al-Ghazl market and was known to locals as “the crazy lady”. At least 88 people were wounded in the attack, officials said.
The pet bazaar has been bombed repeatedly, but with violence declining in the capital, the market had regained popularity as a shopping district and place to stroll on Fridays, the Muslim day of prayer.
But on this Friday, it was returned to a scene straight out of the worst days of the conflict. Firefighters scooped up debris scattered among pools of blood, clothing and pigeon carcasses.
A pigeon vendor said the market had been unusually crowded, with people taking advantage of a pleasantly crisp and clear winter day after a particularly harsh January.
“I have been going to the pet market with my friend every Friday, selling and buying pigeons,” said Ali Ahmed, who was hit by shrapnel in his legs and chest. “It was nice weather today and the market was so crowded.”
He said he was worried about his friend, Zaki, who disappeared after the blast about 40 meters away.
“I just remember the horrible scene of the bodies of dead and wounded people mixed with the blood of animals and birds, then I found myself lying in a hospital bed,” Ali said.
The second female suicide bomber was blown apart in a bird market in New Baghdad, a predominantly Shiite area in a south-eastern section of the capital. Some 37 people were killed and 56 injured, police and hospital officials said.
Rae Muhsin, the 21-year-old owner of a cell phone store, said he was walking toward the bird market when the explosion shattered the windows of nearby stores.
“I ran toward the bird market and saw charred pieces of flesh, small spots of blood and several damaged cars,” Muhsin said. “I thought that we had achieved real security in Baghdad, but it turned out that we were wrong.”
The bombings were the latest in a series that has frayed Iraqi confidence in the permanence of recent security gains.
The US military in Iraqi issued a statement that shared “the outrage of the Iraqi people, and we condemn the brutal enemy responsible for these attacks, which bear the hallmarks of being carried out by al-Qaida in Iraq.”
The US ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, said the bombings showed that a resilient al-Qaida has “found a different, deadly way” to try to destabilise Iraq.
“There is nothing they won’t do if they think it will work in creating carnage and the political fallout that comes from that,” he said in an interview at the State Department.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued a statement today saying the attacks revealed terrorists’ “hatred of humanity and all Iraqis”.
“Terrorists are aiming to prevent normal life from coming back to Baghdad, and turn it back to the pre-surge period,” the statement said.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said the attacks were motivated by revenge and an attempt “to stop the march of history and of our people toward reconciliation.” He confirmed the death toll was about 70.
Scott Rye, a US military spokesman, gave far lower casualty figures – seven killed and 23 wounded in the first bombing, and 20 killed and 30 wounded in the second.
He confirmed, however, that both attacks were carried out by women wearing explosives vests and said the attacks appeared co-ordinated and likely the work of al-Qaida in Iraq.
Associated Press records show that since the start of the war at least 177 people have been killed in at least 17 attacks or attempted attacks by female suicide bombers, including Friday’s bombings.
The most recent previous attack was January 16 when a female suicide bomber detonated her explosives among men preparing for the Ashoura holiday in a Shiite village in Diyala province, north-east of Baghdad.
While involving women in such deadly activity violates cultural taboos in Iraq, the US military has warned that al-Qaida is recruiting women and young people as suicide attackers because militants are increasingly desperate to thwart stepped-up security measures.
Syria also has reportedly tightened its border with Iraq, a main transit point for incoming foreign bombers.
Women in Iraq often wear abayas, the black Islamic robe, and avoid thorough searches at checkpoints because men are not allowed to touch them and there are too few female police.
Even the use of the handicapped in suicide bombings is not unprecedented in Iraq. In January 2005, Iraq’s interior minister said insurgents used a disabled child in a suicide attack on election day. Police at the scene of the bombing said the child also appeared to have Down’s Syndrome.
Many teenage boys were among the casualties in the al-Ghazl bombing Friday, according to the officials who gave the death toll. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to release the information.
In Late November, a bomb hidden in a box of small birds exploded at the al-Ghazl market, killing at least 15 people and wounding dozens. The US military blamed the November attack on Iranian-backed Shiite militants, saying they had hoped al-Qaida in Iraq would be held responsible for the attack so Iraqis would turn to them for protection.
The US military has been unable to stop the suicide bombings despite a steep drop in violence in the past six months. Friday’s blasts were the deadliest in the capital since an April 18 suicide car bombing that killed 116 and wounded 145. Washington’s “surge” of an additional 30,000 soldiers into Baghdad and other parts of central Iraq began in February, but did not reach full strength until June.