Mohammed Raad and his friends, Ali and Abdullah Sami, had just finished working out at a gym Thursday when the first explosion ripped through the crowded market street in Hillah, overturning carts and blowing out shop windows.
Despite the chaos, Raad then clearly heard a policeman shout, “Suicide bomber!”
He saw the officer run toward a man who had opened his jacket to reveal a belt of explosives. With a last heroic gesture, the policeman threw his arms around the bomber, shielding others with his own body from the force of the second blast, according to Raad and other witnesses in the southern Iraq city.
“He hugged him, and the explosives tore apart both bodies,” Raad said. He sheepishly recounted how he fled without looking back, leaving his friends, who were knocked down by the second explosion.
“I ran, and I just left them there,” he said.
The bombings that struck the crowded Shiite Muslim market Thursday afternoon killed at least 45 people and wounded 150, police said.
Additional bombings, mortar attacks and assassinations left more than 40 other people dead around Iraq, authorities said.
Fortunately, Raad said, his friends were not among the dead in Hillah.
It was the third such attack in the heart of the city in two years, and the second on Maktabat Street.
“It’s 100% sectarian,” said Raad, who blamed Sunni Muslims for the attack. “It doesn’t need an explanation.”
On the city’s main street, families had been walking among the market stalls, finishing their weekend shopping. Raad, a 19-year-old high school student, needed new notebooks, so the friends had been heading toward the stationery store.
The police said the explosions at the market were caused by a pair of suicide bombers, but Raad said the first blast was a roadside bomb.
“Everything was turned upside down,” he said.
Hussein Shaheed, the 22-year-old owner of a pickle shop, was buying material for his shop with his friend Ahmed when the explosion ripped through the market.
“I felt myself thrown into the air,” he said. After hitting the ground, he was momentarily paralyzed. Ahmed lay next to him, and around them people were screaming. Shaheed’s shop was burning.
Eventually, police helped get both of them off the ground. Gathering all his strength, Shaheed went to another shop that belongs to his brother, Firas.
There, a charred body lay by the doorstep. But his brother was alive, though his clothes were torn and his head had been injured by flying shards of glass.
“It felt like doomsday,” Shaheed said later. “I can still smell the burning flesh.”
At a hospital, Dr. Qaisar Mohammed said training had not prepared the physicians for such carnage. People who had suffered burns, lost limbs or been otherwise wounded flooded the facility, which did not have the capacity to care for everyone. Medicine and other supplies ran short and had to be brought from other hospitals.
“My hands were shaking when I was fixing an injection for one of the patients,” Mohammed said. “The screams of women and children are still ringing in my ears.”
In Baghdad, meanwhile, 30 unidentified bodies were found dumped in various neighborhoods. A suicide bomber boarded a bus in the Shiite neighborhood of Karada and set off his explosives, killing six people and injuring a dozen.
Elsewhere in the city, a car bomb killed three people and injured seven, and a bomb hidden in a trash heap killed one and injured three. Mortar rounds killed four people in separate attacks.
North of Baghdad, a suicide bomber wearing a vest packed with explosives blew himself up outside Tikrit University, where Salahuddin provincial Gov. Hamad Humood was taking an exam for his master’s degree in law. The explosion injured six students, police said.
In Diyala province northeast of the capital, gunmen killed the dean of the Sports College, Welhan Hameed, and his son on the college grounds.
Last month, the United Nations said at least 34,400 Iraqi civilians had been killed in the country’s civil war during 2006. At least 2,067 more were killed during January, according to Iraqi government statistics.
A special correspondent in Hillah and Times staff writer Saif Hameed in Baghdad contributed to this report.