The police officer warned them to spread out. Now was not the time to cluster around one another so closely. But he didn't press too hard before he moved along. In this time of war and misery, police officer Sabah Shayal admitted, it heartened him to see so many people gathering on a gleaming Friday morning for one of the capital's most celebrated treats, the Ghazel pet and livestock flea market.
Winter's cool glazed the sunshine. In bags, boxes and carts, poor young men brought the pigeons, parakeets, dogs, cats, tropical fish, scorpions, monkeys and snakes to sell to families shopping for pets. In pickup trucks, they brought top-grade roosters, goats and sheep they raised in the yards of their homes in the Sadr City district to sell to farmers. Parents brought their children to delight in the festival of creatures.
"I told them groups and large gatherings are targeted," Shayal said. "They told me, 'Don't worry. We're selling pets. No one will target us.' "
Two hours later, after a bomb or two hidden in a box ripped through the market, killing 15 people and wounding 51, Shayal returned to survey the grotesque scene. The bodies were piled on the carcasses of dead animals.
"The birds were roasted," he said. "There were piles of flesh."
Shayal and other officers tried to keep the bystanders away from the victims until ambulances arrived. Bomb victims often suffer internal injuries, and people trying to help by dragging them into taxicabs to speed them to the hospital often wind up killing them, he said. "I tried to keep them away," he said.
"They kept coming closer."
An official at Baghdad's Kindi Hospital said most of those killed were younger than 25. Ball bearings packed into the explosive device magnified the carnage and damage. One of the dead was a boy of 10.
Many of those injured lost years of hard work raising the animals.
"We sell special pigeons that we raise ourselves," said Fuad Ahmed, a 16-year-old who suffered shrapnel wounds to his head and shoulder. "We sell a pair for about $50. They all flew away in the explosion."
As usual, the attack carried sectarian overtones. Most of Ghazel's vendors are poor young Shiite Muslim men from eastern Baghdad.
Witnesses described members of Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr's militia helping secure the bomb scene. "They kept the way clear for the ambulances," said Falah Mehdi, a 35-year-old animal lover who visits the market every other week. "They pushed the people away fearing that another explosion would take place."
Police cleared the scene of debris and bloody remains.
Shayal had begun to leave when he saw something that astounded him.
"The funny thing is, that after some minutes, things went back to normal," he said. "The kids of 13 or 14 years old started to bring their boxes and begin setting up their stalls and selling their animals."
Times staff writer Said Rifai and special correspondents in Baghdad contributed to this report.