Two bombs exploded hours apart Friday in a central Baghdad pet market and a police checkpoint in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, killing 26 people and wounding dozens, officials said.
The attacks were among the deadliest in recent weeks, underscoring warnings by senior U.S. commanders that extremists still pose a threat to Iraq’s fragile security despite a downturn in violence since a U.S.-Iraqi security plan began in mid-February.
The blast in the capital’s popular weekly al-Ghazl animal bazaar occurred just before 9 a.m., shattering the festive atmosphere as people strolled past the stalls.
At least 13 people were killed and nearly 60 wounded, including four policemen, according to police and hospital officials. Several shops also were damaged.
About 1:30 p.m. in Mosul, a suicide car bomber struck a police checkpoint, killing three policemen and 10 civilians, said police Brig. Gen. Mohammed al-Wakaa.
The al-Ghazl market, where sellers peddle birds, dogs, cats, sheep, goats and exotic animals such as snakes and monkeys, has been targeted in the past. On Jan. 26, 15 people were killed when a bomb hidden in a box of pigeons exploded as shoppers gathered around it.
Blast shatters increased feeling of security
Friday’s blast was particularly significant because it dealt a blow to an increased feeling of confidence among Iraqis about the recent calm in the capital and surrounding areas.
Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, the Iraqi military spokesman for Baghdad, said the explosives were hidden in a box carrying pigeons and other small birds.
“The security situation is moving in the right direction toward the better, but there are still pockets that make use of such opportunities as the presence of different kinds of animals and birds to carry out the ugliest crimes,” he told Iraqi state television.
The market has regained popularity after the lifting of a four-hour Friday driving ban to protect prayer services from car bombings. The Iraqi government lifted the weekly ban in September, citing the improving security situation.
A local storeowner who would only give his name as Abu Zainab said he had only reopened his business two weeks ago.
“I was reluctant to open it after lifting the curfew because of security concerns,” he said of his cleaning supply store that is about 150 yards from the blast site.
“Today, the view of many young men coming with pets, colorful fish in aquariums and dogs was very encouraging and cheerful,” he said. “There were also teenagers selling sandwiches and tea in wheeled carts giving the impression that life is back to normal again, but about 9 o’clock, we heard the sound of an explosion.”
He described a scene of chaos, with birds flying through smoke as the bodies of young men who had been killed and wounded lay on the ground.
“We helped evacuate some of them, then the Iraqi police and army came and told us to leave because they feared another explosion could take place,” he said.
Vendor feels deceived
Amir Aziz, a 22-year-old pigeon vendor who was wounded by shrapnel, said he was in the middle of a transaction when the blast occurred.
“Today, the market was very crowded and we were happy about that,” he said. “The Iraqi security officials have deceived us by their statements that the situation is 80 percent better. People believed them and began to go out thinking that it would be safe. I think that the situation will become worse again.”
In other violence, a parked car bomb targeted a police patrol in Shurqat, 155 miles northwest of Baghdad, killing one officer and wounding 15 others, along with one civilian, authorities said.
The U.S. military also said a mortar attack late Thursday struck the base in Balad, 50 miles north of Baghdad, killing one Iraqi and wounding two. There were no coalition casualties.
The top U.S. commander in northern Iraq, Army Maj. Gen. Mark P. Hertling, warned earlier this month that northern Iraq has become more violent than other regions as al-Qaida and other militants move there to avoid military operations elsewhere.
On Friday, U.S. troops detained seven suspects in three coordinated raids against al-Qaida in Iraq’s media network southeast of the northern city of Samarra, the military said.
“Defeating al-Qaida’s propaganda networks undermines their fundraising and recruiting,” said Maj. Winfield Danielson, a U.S. military spokesman.
U.S. officials say attacks have dropped 55 percent nationwide since June. But American military commanders repeatedly have warned that Iraq is by no means stable, even though the violence is declining.
Al-Moussawi also urged Iraqis to be patient, insisting that U.S. and Iraqi forces were gaining the upper hand but “pockets of terrorists” still exist.
“Thank God that our people are still challenging the circumstances and they have broken the barrier of fear,” he said. “The people have to stay alert and continue cooperating with us so as not to give the terrorists any opportunities to carry out such cowardly operations.”
South Asian workers face immigration charges
In another development, the Iraqi government said 31 South Asian workers detained after a shooting involving foreign security guards face charges of illegally entering the country.
Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told The Associated Press that the 21 Sri Lankans, nine Nepalese and one Indian would appear before a magistrate Sunday.
“We call upon all companies operating in Iraq to register and settle the status of the foreign employees,” he said. “The companies should make sure that their workers have official visas from Iraqi authorities.”
The workers were picked up Tuesday after police said the security guards protecting their convoy opened fire in Baghdad’s Karradah district, wounding a woman. Two Fijian and 10 Iraqi security guards are under investigation for assault.