By Aseel Kami BAGHDAD, Reuters
A suicide car bomb devastated Baghdad’s historic booksellers’ district on Monday, killing up to 26 people and setting shops and cars ablaze, sending a thick plume of choking black smoke over the city.
As U.S. and Iraqi forces extended a major security crackdown into a key Shi’ite militia haven in northeast Baghdad, the blast was a challenge to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki who has vowed to deal evenly with Sunni Arab insurgents and Shi’ite militias.
“There’s black smoke everywhere,” a Reuters witness said by telephone from the roof of a building on Mutanabi Street.
He said ambulance sirens were sounding and the street below was in chaos, with pools of blood on the pavements and shop fronts destroyed, mangled debris littering the street. “There was so much smoke that I was vomiting,” said the witness, who was in a book shop on the street when the windows were blown out by the blast.
As firefighters doused the flames which reached up to the third storey of some buildings, papers and book pages fluttered on the ground, some blackened, others bloody. Charred bodies lay almost unrecognizable, half buried in the rubble of shopfronts.
The bomb exploded around 50 metres (yards) from the Shah Bander cafe, a beacon of Baghdad’s once thriving literary life.
“There are many shops set on fire and more than 15 cars were burned out,” said the Reuters witness, adding he helped several casualties into a police car that took seven people away to hospital. “They were covered with blood,” he said.
One police source said the blast killed 26 people and wounded 54. Another police source put the death toll at 16 with 64 wounded. Three witnesses said it was a suicide car bomber.