A late-morning sun baked Jadriya Street and life moved in slow motion, the traffic inching through rush hour, the rubbish collectors pausing for rest, the shoppers dawdling in cafes. A police convoy of Land Cruisers and pickup trucks weaved through the jam clogging the middle-class Shiite district of central Baghdad. No one noticed the minibus, one of the ubiquitous South Korean-made Kias, until it exploded into a fireball. The bang was like a clap of thunder inside your skull, said one survivor, and the heat wave like a giant oven door swinging open.
The bomb incinerated a dozen vehicles and hurled metal shards through cars, windows and flesh. Stunned, the police fired into the air. Guards from the Al-Hamra Hotel raced out and joined the shooting, though at what nobody knew. Then the second bomb, apparently packed into a Volkswagen 200 meters from the first, sent more shrapnel hissing up the street. Bodies burned in cars while the wounded staggered and slumped. Some survivors described a sudden, deep silence, but they had been deafened. Jadriya was filled with shouts and moans and sirens.
The twin blasts killed at least 15 people, including several children, five trash collectors and one policeman, and wounded dozens. A bad day in Baghdad but far from its worst and not enough to dent U.S. optimism that things are getting better.
Earlier this week President Bush told cheering American troops that the establishment of a "free Iraq" would crush tyranny and terror. U.S. and British commanders claim the insurgency is weakening and cite a steep fall in the number of daily attacks and coalition casualties.
Thursday's atrocity in Jadriya will not alter those calculations, nor will the gunning down of five policemen and a civilian in the northern city of Kirkuk.
Al-Qaida in Iraq, a group led by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, claimed responsibility in an Internet statement: "Two lions from the martyrs' brigade launched themselves [on] an apostate police patrol." In other words, one of the most feared and effective insurgent groups had launched a big attack but had managed to kill just one policeman and injure two, a good result for homegrown security forces trained by coalition troops.
It was not so good for the civilians of Jadriya, which lies on the Tigris River. The dead and the body parts went straight to the morgue while ambulances ferried most of the wounded to Yarmuk Hospital. The sirens alerted staff, who were ready for the stream of patients into the emergency ward, some limping, some on stretchers.
A 12-year-old boy called Abbas had lost his father and was in shock. Shrapnel was lodged in his forehead and behind his right ear, his head was bandaged and his face was speckled with blood. Seated on a bed, he watched the other casualties with no apparent interest.
Firas Rahman, a 35-year-old businessman, considered himself lucky. After the first blast he ducked under his dashboard. The second blast destroyed his Audi but, thanks to the airbag, he escaped with a chest and face peppered with gashes. "They are not Muslims, those who did this," he said. Like many Iraqis, Rahman distinguishes the "bad resistance," which targets Iraqis, from the "good resistance," which targets only Americans.
According to police there was a third car bomb that failed to detonate, possibly because the driver was injured in one of the first two blasts. The suspect was also treated at Yarmuk.
There was no panic, barely even a bustle, at the hospital, which had enough staff, medicine and stocks of blood. "I wouldn't call this an especially busy day," said one nurse, Raha Hussein.
A policeman watched his wounded colleague being hooked to a drip. "Bitterness fills my mouth," he said. But he too was phlegmatic about his sixth bomb in nine months on the force. Did he like his job? "Love it. I want to serve Iraq."
At the bomb site a familiar choreography unfolded. Apache helicopters circled overhead as American Humvees and Iraqi police cars sealed off the road. Military bulldozers moved in to clear away charred vehicles. Onlookers huddled and spoke in low voices before drifting away. By dusk the roadblocks were lifted and traffic returned. A warm wind scattered the soot and ash.