As their superiors inspected a car mangled by one of three blasts that rocked Baghdad’s government center Tuesday, two Iraqi soldiers nearby scoffed at the military’s shortcomings in protecting the capital.
For one thing, they said, checkpoints don’t stop those who are -- or appear to be -- influential.
The soldiers, who declined to provide their names because they were not authorized to talk to journalists, watched as authorities huddled over the burned-out car in an exclusive parking lot for government employees, just around the corner from the Defense Ministry. The investigators were heard discussing how two people wearing officers uniforms had parked in the lot and walked away.
Thirty minutes later the vehicle exploded. It was unclear whether the men were officers who knowingly or unknowingly carried the bomb or were militants in disguise.
Real or impostors, the bombers made it through various checkpoints.
On the streets, where the real work of providing security for the capital is carried out, the soldiers spoke of their frustration. They said they can do little to stop such attacks near government ministries, which claimed six lives Tuesday, because they risk being criticized by their superiors if they try to search the car of an officer or politician.
“We are embarrassed and don’t know what to do,” one of the men said. “If we search an officer’s car, we will be blamed. If we don’t search his car, we will be blamed too.”
They said that many soldiers were demoralized and lacked the support of their commanders. They said their weapons were the only gear the army provided them; they had to buy their uniforms and helmets at street markets.
“If things continue this way, the security will not improve for 10 years,” one of them said, as a third soldier came over and nodded in agreement.
A block away, a tow truck was hauling away another blown-up car from a parking lot opposite the Foreign Ministry; a teddy bear lay in the dirt next to broken glass. It was here that a suicide car bomb detonated Aug. 19, killing dozens and tearing down portions of the ministry compound. Workers are still repairing the damage.
After Tuesday’s bombings, government workers and civilians echoed the soldiers’ fear and frustration over the random violence in this district, which serves as Iraq’s seat of power.
“I don’t feel safe here,” said Ali Atia as he walked down the street. He made it clear that he planned to vote in the upcoming elections for Prime Minister Nouri Maliki. But if he had a choice now between democracy or martial law, Atia said, “I will prefer the latter.”
Three policemen sat beneath a wooden sun shelter, inspecting people’s IDs. They didn’t doubt that they will have more days like Tuesday.
“There is no security, and everything is expected,” the officer said, as he watched police cars pull into a nearby station guarding the ministries and entrances to the Green Zone.
The Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella group that includes Al Qaeda in Iraq, has claimed responsibility for a number of the recent bombings. Some Iraqi officials, however, point the finger at remnants of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party.
A Sunni Arab former insurgent said he believed the attacks were being plotted by Al Qaeda in Iraq’s elite fighters, who used to stay in the shadows but now involve themselves in day-to-day planning because their financing streams and ranks have been decimated.
He said it was easy for members of the militant group to pressure security officials for entrance to secure areas like the neighborhood near the Green Zone.
“If you know I am an officer, you know my information. If I am not helping you, I know my family will be under threat,” the former insurgent said. “Al Qaeda is a native son. They are still working in society; they know the people.”
Elsewhere Tuesday, car bombs blew up outside two churches in the northern city of Mosul, claiming the lives of four people.
For Christians, the bombings stirred ugly memories of attacks aimed at them last fall, which caused hundreds to flee the city. Kurkis Hassan, a 52-year-old auto mechanic, said that if the attacks continued he would take his family north to a Christian village, where he felt they would be safe.
“I’m afraid that the attacks targeting the Christians in Mosul will be escalated,” he said.
Salman is a Times staff writer.