BAGHDAD – The first blast brought news Baghdad had heard before: A bomber had hit a popular pet market that had suffered through such attacks in the past. Then came news of a second bomb at a bird market.
In the hours to come – as the scope of the attacks became clear – the scenes of scattered bodies and destroyed market stalls brought back memories of days Baghdad’s residents had hoped were behind them.
But there was still one more possibly ugly twist to Friday’s carnage: Iraqi officials said the bombs were carried by two mentally disabled women who may have been used as unwitting suicide bombers among people wandering amid the sounds of squeaking animals and chirping birds.
The blasts killed at least 91 people and wounded scores of others in the deadliest day since Washington flooded the capital with extra troops last spring.
After months of steadily improving security – and cautiously rising hope – Baghdad was once again hit hard by insurgents.
The coordinated blasts, coming 20 minutes apart, also appeared to reinforce U.S. claims that al-Qaida in Iraq may be increasingly desperate and running short of able-bodied men willing or available for such missions.
They served, too, as a reminder that Iraqi insurgents are constantly shifting their strategies to try to unravel recent security gains in the country. Women have been used in ever greater frequency in suicide attacks.
Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, Iraq’s chief military spokesman in Baghdad, said the women had Down syndrome and may not have known they were on suicide missions.
He said the bombs were detonated by remote control.
In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the bombings prove al-Qaida is “the most brutal and bankrupt of movements” and will strengthen Iraqi resolve to reject terrorism.
Iraqi officials raised the death toll to 91 from 73 early today, but they were unable to immediately provide a casualty breakdown in the two bombings. Earlier, officials had said the first bomb was detonated about 10:20 a.m. in the central al-Ghazl market. Four police and hospital officials said at least 46 people were killed and more than 100 wounded.
Police said the woman wearing the bomb sold cream in the mornings at the market and was known to locals as “the crazy lady.”
The pet bazaar has been bombed repeatedly, but with violence declining in the capital, the market had regained popularity as a shopping district and place to stroll on Fridays, the Muslim day of prayer.
But on Friday, it again became a scene straight out of the worst days of the conflict. Firefighters scooped up debris scattered among pools of blood, clothing and pigeon carcasses.
A pigeon vendor said the market had been unusually crowded, with people taking advantage of a pleasantly crisp and clear winter day after a particularly harsh January.
“I have been going to the pet market with my friend every Friday, selling and buying pigeons,” said Ali Ahmed, who was hit by shrapnel in his legs and chest. “It was nice weather today and the market was so crowded.”
About 20 minutes after the first attack, the second female suicide bomber was blown apart in a bird market in a predominantly Shiite area in southeastern Baghdad. Initial reports had said as many as 27 people died and 67 were wounded, police and hospital officials said.
Rae Muhsin, the 21-year-old owner of a cell phone store, said he was walking toward the New Baghdad bird market when the explosion shattered the windows of nearby stores.
“I ran toward the bird market and saw charred pieces of flesh, small spots of blood and several damaged cars,” Muhsin said. “I thought that we had achieved real security in Baghdad, but it turned out that we were wrong.”
The bombings were the latest in a series that has frayed Iraqi confidence in the permanence of recent security gains.
U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker said the bombings showed that a resilient al-Qaida has “found a different, deadly way” to try to destabilize Iraq.
“There is nothing they won’t do if they think it will work in creating carnage and the political fallout that comes from that,” he told the Associated Press in an interview at the State Department.
AP records show that since the start of the war, at least 169 people have been killed in at least 17 attacks or attempted attacks by female suicide bombers, including Friday’s blasts.
The most recent previous attack was Jan. 16, when a female suicide bomber detonated her explosives among men preparing for the Ashoura holiday in a Shiite village in Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad.
While involving women in such deadly activity violates cultural taboos in Iraq, the U.S. military has warned that al-Qaida is recruiting women and young people as suicide attackers because militants are increasingly desperate to thwart stepped-up security measures.
Women in Iraq often wear abayas, the black Islamic robe, and avoid thorough searches at checkpoints because men are not allowed to touch them and there are too few female police.
Even the use of people with disabilities in suicide bombings is not unprecedented in Iraq. In January 2005, the interior minister said insurgents used a disabled child in a suicide attack on election day. Police said the child appeared to have Down syndrome.