A carefully orchestrated suicide bombing Thursday in a crowded shopping district killed at least 55 Iraqi civilians and security officials and injured 131 people.
The death toll was expected to rise overnight as hospitals in the capital struggled to contend with shrapnel and burn victims, many of them women and children enjoying an evening out at the start of the Muslim weekend.
The bombing followed by three days an attack that killed 26 people in Baghdad’s Bab al Muadam district and by a month suicide attacks against Shiite Muslim pilgrims that killed nearly 100 people.
Thursday’s assault raised fears of an upsurge in the kind of large-scale Sunni Arab attacks on Shiite Muslim civilians that inspired sectarian reprisals and pushed Iraq toward civil war in 2006.
The bombing also showed the insurgents’ ability to evade the most elaborate security precautions officials can employ to protect Iraqi civilians. It took place in the upscale Karada neighborhood along one of the capital’s most tightly guarded urban corridors.
The bombing came at a time when the U.S. military is slowly pulling out the 28,500 additional troops it deployed to central Baghdad last year to reduce sectarian and insurgent violence. The buildup reduced by 60% the number of violent attacks in Iraq late last year, but the violence has crept back up in recent weeks with a string of attacks, including coordinated suicide bombings Feb. 1 that killed 99 people at two Baghdad pet markets.
Thursday’s attack appeared designed to inflict maximum casualties.
An initial explosion went off before 7 p.m. in a dumpster near an outdoor produce market in Karada, one of the capital’s liveliest areas. The blast killed three civilians and injured a dozen other people.
The disruption attracted a crowd of onlookers, rescuers and security officials. A suicide bomber wearing an explosives-packed belt beneath what some described as a leather jacket was among the crowd.
He set off his bomb about five minutes after the first explosion, security officials said.
“I ran outside to see what was going on, only to have the second blast going off,” said Kareem Abdullah, the 27-year-old proprietor of a clothing shop 200 yards from the bombing site. “I could see fire and smoke. I saw people thrown to the ground. I couldn’t tell if they were unconscious or dead.”
Karada had just begun emerging in earnest from the doldrums of war. Long a center of commerce and civic life, the neighborhood was being hailed as a success story of the Baghdad security plan. In recent weeks, new shops had begun to open, catering to the mostly Shiite Muslim and middle-class residents of the area, one of the city’s few neighborhoods to remain vibrant well past dark.
But Karada has been the target of attacks by Sunni insurgents. It is a stronghold of supporters of cleric Abdelaziz Hakim’s Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the country’s dominant Shiite political party.
The explosions erupted as shoppers and pedestrians walked along the streets on what one witness called “an unusually crowded” evening.
Pandemonium erupted. “It was chaotic and everyone was screaming,” said Ali Abdul-Hussein, 37, owner of a cellphone shop 150 yards from the blast site.
“I saw 20 helpless, dead bodies with my own eyes, children and women among them,” he said. “It was a very miserable situation. I knew it. I knew something like this would happen.”
Young men hurried to help, handing victims water and cleaning wounds. Ambulances and good Samaritans transported victims to 13 hospitals throughout east Baghdad.
At Medical City hospital, where as many as 30 of the victims had been brought, Redha Mohammed awaited word on the fate of his son Hisham. Mohammed had rushed to the site of the blasts, only to be told his son had been taken to the hospital.
“He has deep wounds in his abdomen and severe burns,” he said of his son, who peddles costume jewelry in Karada. “They’re trying to stop the bleeding.”
At the scene of the blasts, pools of water used by firefighters to douse the flames mixed with the blood of victims. At least 16 of the dead and 28 of the injured were security officials on hand to help the victims of the first explosion. The blasts crushed shops and mangled more than a dozen vehicles.
Abdul-Hussein, the cellphone shop owner, said he almost preferred the constant stream of attacks that once beset the country, and kept him mostly at home until six months ago, to the stop-and-go violence these days.
“This is an unbearable situation that we are living,” he said. “It calms for a while and then goes crazy like this. I saw so many bodies and wounded it was unbelievable.”
Special correspondents in Baghdad contributed to this report.