Tuesday, March 06, 2007

no retreat from violence

Books & bombs should never be mixed, yet here is today's sad news from Iraq (excerpt courtesy of the New York Times).

Suicide Bombing Kills 20 in Baghdad Book Market

BAGHDAD, March 5 — The book market along Mutanabi Street was a throwback to the Baghdad of old, the days of students browsing for texts, turbaned clerics hunting down religious tomes and cafe intellectuals debating politics over backgammon.

Somehow it survived the war, until Monday, when a powerful suicide car bomb hit the market, slicing through the heart of the capital’s intellectual scene. It killed at least 20 people and wounded more than 65.

In the hours after the noontime explosion, books and stationery, some tied in charred bundles, littered the block. Plumes of black smoke billowed above ornate buildings dating to the Ottoman Empire. The storied Shahbandar cafe, where elderly writers puffed away the afternoon on water pipes, lay in ruins.

Firefighters unleashed powerful sprays of water, only to have flames reignite because the paper had been transformed into kindling.

This part of Baghdad dates back centuries, to the era when the Abbasid caliphate ruled over the Islamic world. On Monday, victims lacerated by shrapnel were carried over shards of glass to waiting ambulances.

“There are no Americans or Iraqi politicians here — there are only Iraqi intellectuals who represent themselves and their homeland, plus stationery and book dealers,” said Abdul Baqi Faidhullah, 61, a poet who frequently visits the street. “Those who did this are like savage machines intent on harvesting souls and killing all bright minds.”

The bombing was the latest of a half-dozen major blasts aimed at civilians in the capital in the three weeks since the Iraqi government and American military announced the start of a new Baghdad security drive. The number of gunshot killings attributed to sectarian death squads appears to have dropped as militia leaders have ordered their followers to lie low. But deadly bombings have continued with ferocity.

None of those bombings have had the symbolic resonance of the one on Mutanabi Street, the embodiment of Baghdad’s venerable intellectual history. Avid readers could find novels by the Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz and Newsweek magazines from the 1960s. Merchants often spread their wares out on the sidewalk, down the block from a building used for administration by Ottoman-era officials and, after World War I, British colonial officers.

Religious texts, particularly on Shiite ideology, began to appear after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, who had banned them from markets across Baghdad. The conversations at the Shahbandar cafe blossomed into free expressions of political opinion. The cafe became popular with foreign reporters seeking comments from Iraqi intellectuals on the changes roiling Iraqi society.

But commerce along Mutanabi Street began to decline last summer after the Iraqi government imposed a citywide curfew every Friday for security reasons, making it tough to get to Mutanabi on its traditional market day.

The bombing on Monday shattered hopes for a rebirth. An Iraqi colonel on the scene said the suicide car bomb, which was loaded with gas cylinders, had left a crater more than 9 feet deep in the middle of the street. At least 20 cars were set ablaze.

“Those terrorists do not represent Islam,” said Wissam Arif, 45, an engineer and eager browser of the book market. “They are fighting science. They hate the light of science and scientists. Haven’t they killed hundreds of prophets and intellectuals?

“Yesterday they killed the prophets and today they are killing the books. But hopefully the just, the science and the light will win. We’ll be patient until we achieve victory.”

There are fewer and fewer public spaces where one can retreat from the violence of Baghdad. An animal market nearby has been bombed three times. Parks where couples once embraced are now empty of life because people are afraid to leave their homes. Some renowned restaurants have shut down and reopened in Amman, Jordan, a city brimming with Iraqi refugees.

Ahmad Fadam contributed reporting from Baghdad, and employees of The New York Times from Kirkuk and Baquba.


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