Bombs are harsh reminder of lingering danger in Baghdad

August 21, 2009 

The first bomb Wednesday barely shook the window. The second really rattled the glass, like an earthquake I remember from when I lived in a particularly shabby apartment.

I could tell it wasn't nearby, but it was unnerving, not least because my reporters were out of the office and I couldn't find out what the hell happened until they returned.

Heider, one of the bureau drivers, and I took the elevator to the roof, where we saw a thick plume of smoke snaking up to cover the sky just on the opposite side of the Tigris River and the Green Zone.

Hammad arrived and we started laying a plan. Should he go out? Should he work the phones? Is there anything I could do as a non-Arabic speaker? Notice how much work here goes on his shoulders.

We found out that at least two truck bombs had exploded in front of Iraqi government buildings.

"Can you get there?" I ask. We don't know. The roads are blocked by now.

A little time passes and Hammad starts to go. "Do you want to come?" he asks me.

"Can I go?" I'd barely considered it. I've learned the daily precautions we take to ensure my safety, and letting the visiting reporter from the United States out to a bomb site is kind of rare for us. Too many threats — secondary attacks, the good possibility that someone hurt at the site really doesn't like Americans.

"Would you be more effective without me?" I ask.

"Yes. You should go anyway. Change your clothes."

Yes, sir, Hammad.

We get in our car. A chase driver follows. Standard procedure just in case something happens to the front car.

We try twice to cross the Tigris River but the roads are blocked. We try one more.

No dice.

I notice we're driving toward the Green Zone entrance. If we can't drive to the bombings, we'll walk there.

The plan works, even in the noontime heat that makes your heart beat a little faster and the sweat roll down.

We approach the site of a buckled 12-story building, and police and firefighters start hassling us about taking pictures.

"Right, I'll fix it by not taking a picture," Hammad barks at someone in a blue uniform.

(It's irritating when this happens in the United States. There's something that feels especially wrong about that pressure when you're talking about a truck bomb that kills 60 people. People need to know that this happens, and they need to see how bad it is.)

I snap a couple of pictures of the damaged Foreign Ministry before we decide that I'm risking having my camera confiscated. I slink back and take pictures of rows and rows of cars with shattered windows in a parking lot opposite the ministry.

We see an elderly woman shopkeeper sorting out debris in her street-level store. The bomb knocked her to the ground and buried her underneath her shelves and goods. A taxi driver helped her out. His car was smashed and totaled by the bomb. We ask her a couple of questions and she rails on the government that she says let this happen.

"Our house is destroyed. Where are we going to sleep tonight? It would be better if I had died," she says.

More Iraqis tell us the government can't — or won't — stop these attacks. They assume someone on the inside let the bombs through. How else to explain the way trucks laden with explosives passed security checkpoints without a look?

We talk to a few more people before Hammad hears a woman sobbing about a lost brother, her head tilted back to the heavens as she cries.

He tells me to take her picture. I have talked to people in the worst moments of their lives. I have not photographed them. I did what I could. One way to respect her brother's death is to show the world the grief it caused.

By the time I get home, I'll have spent about 15 weeks here since November. You can tell from the stories I write that things generally are improving and I've been fortunate with many opportunities to be both safe and productive here.

But there's always the possibility a day like today can happen.

I'm grateful Hammad got me out of my bubble and gave me a better understanding of what I ask the bureau staff to do when I truly can't go places they can.

Now I've been to Baghdad.

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton is on a two-month assignment in Iraq for McClatchy Newspapers.

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