"I already feel I'm dead"

Is Iraq descending into civil war? As the seemingly indiscriminate violence spreads, many are worried that it is.

Published September 15, 2004 3:02PM (EDT)

Lying amid the debris strewn near Al-Karkh police station was the photo of a young man in a blue T-shirt. The passport snapshot had been part of his application to join Iraq's police force. Tuesday, however, he and dozens of other recruits queuing outside the station in central Baghdad were blown to pieces by a car bomb. Near the photo, someone had heaped the shoes of the dead and injured into a neat pile.

The destruction from the suspected suicide blast that killed 47 people and injured 114 was everywhere: bits of metal, glass, a broken billiards table, a dead bird and pools of blood.

There was nothing left of the recruit in the photo. "The bomb went off at 10 a.m. A lot of people were queuing up to join the police," said Allah Hamas, 31, who owns Allah's Famous Falafel Stand, next to the police station. "I handed a customer a sandwich. Suddenly there was an explosion and a piece of metal ripped off the top of his head.

"After that I ran out to help. We covered the dead with blankets. I saw at least 30 bodies. Thirteen of them were burned completely. Some people were scattered into pieces. We found them among their files and photos."

It was the deadliest single incident in the Iraqi capital in six months, but there was nothing unique about the explosion; it took place a few hundred meters from Haifa Street, a well-known center of resistance to the American occupation and the scene of heavy fighting on Sunday. It was embarrassingly close to the protected Green Zone and the U.S. Embassy.

And it reveals a grim truth about the nature of Iraq's evolving insurgency: Iraqis are killing Iraqis.

In recent months, and especially since the handover of "power" to the unelected interim government, Iraq's resistance has concentrated its efforts on killing those who collaborate with the Americans -- the police officers, would-be police officers, translators, governors and government officials. It is beginning to look like, and feel like, civil war. In another incident yesterday, gunmen ambushed a minibus full of policeman in Baquba, northwest of Baghdad, killing 11 of them and a civilian. They were on their way home to their base. In Ramadi, clashes between U.S. troops and insurgents left eight dead and 18 wounded.

Responsibility for the attacks in Baghdad and Baquba was claimed Tuesday by Tawhid and Jihad, Iraq's shadowy and fastest-growing militant group, which is allegedly linked to the Jordanian al-Qaida ally Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

In reality, though, the real identities of the insurgents remain opaque. They undoubtedly include a handful of foreign fighters, but the majority are Iraqi nationalists violently opposed to the continuing occupation of their country.

"What happened here has really got nothing to do with Islam," said Rafid Ahmed, whose shop in Al-Karkh was destroyed. Ahmed said his two neighbors in the next-door barbershop were killed. He survived only because he opened up late. "Why are these people targeting Iraqi police recruits? They just want to get a salary because they are unemployed," he said. "The people who did this are terrorists."

What would he do now? "Wait and see," he said. "This store provided an income for a whole family."

In the row of ruined neighboring shops there were bloodstains on the ceilings. A few meters away, beyond a pavement strewn with rubble and bits of tree, the explosion had dug a large crater. The blackened engine of the car had landed 30 meters away. Mingled with the smell of incinerated metal was something else: burned flesh.

Another witness, Raad Tawfiq, 40, contradicted the claims of Tawhid and Jihad. "It wasn't a suicide bomb," he said. "They blew the car up by remote control. People in the restaurant spotted them leaving, but it was too late. This was a massacre," he said.

In the run-up to the January elections, Iraq's pro-U.S. interim prime minister, Iyad Allawi, faces some stark choices. He and the U.S. military can try to reoccupy the towns they have abandoned, or accept that there is little prospect of the polls taking place in much of Iraq's Sunni Muslim heartland.

Some Sunni groups have dismissed the elections as a "fake," and no one quite knows whether the insurgency will fizzle out after January or, as seems more likely, become more intense. The interim president, Ghazi al-Yawar, said Tuesday that the elections should go ahead. "Unless the U.N. says it is impossible to hold it, we're going to hold it at that time," he said.

As we drove away from Haifa Street Tuesday, gunfire rang out from the nearby houses. Two green U.S. helicopters circled menacingly. On the weekend a helicopter opened fire on unarmed demonstrators dancing round a burning Bradley armored vehicle. Thirteen were killed, including a TV journalist working for the Arab station Al-Arabiya. Those wounded in Baghdad Tuesday were being treated in Al-Karkh hospital, a short walk from the market where the bomb exploded. American tanks and armored vehicles had parked nearby, before moving off and leaving behind whirling clouds of dust.

Hamas, the falafel shop owner, said he only survived yesterday by the grace of God. But he added: "I'm dead. I already feel I'm dead."

By Luke Harding

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