Basra Hotel Blast Sounded Like God’s Bedroom Set Fell

BAGHDAD-Compared to Baghdad’s in-front-of-a-hotel bombing on Wednesday, March 17, Basra’s in-front-of-a-hotel bombing on Thursday, March 18-three Iraqi civilians killed, minimal damage-was no big news.

At the time, however, it was not without interest.

“They stabbed him with knives; they stepped on him,” recounted Fouad Hassan, 19. It was about 20 minutes after a bomb-bearing Mercedes had exploded into a fireball and taken flight around the corner, right outside the spit-and-polished month-old Boraq Hotel. (“The car became a plane,” the hotel’s owner, who saw it through his shattering-glass façade, later recalled.) Thus, it was about 19 minutes after a spontaneously generated crowd seized one of the two men it believed to be the culprits and began what bystanders described as a frenzy of kicking, stabbing and chanting.

The chant (“By our blood, by our souls, we will sacrifice for you, Hosain!”) had been written in praise of a Shia martyr, but was often raised-as it was here-in fist-thrusting defiance. Seeing this from about half a block away, I vaguely wondered whom the young men were yelling at, as the British soldiers had yet to arrive, and what, if anything, they were jumping on.

By the bystanders’ estimation, it took approximately five minutes for the apparent terrorist to be apparently slain: “He was on the ground, bleeding from everywhere,” said Fouad, a student in a nearby commercial college. As if to verify this account, another young man broke in to call a pair of American reporters “traitors” and to turn proudly outward an ankle speckled red. It was, he boasted, the blood of the murdered murderer.

Despite its detonation outside the hotel, the bomb was assumed by everyone to have been meant for the British convoy that regularly skimmed down Al Istiklal (Independence) Street.

Later, the British Army confirmed only that the crowd had killed a man, without divulging how. Although I saw no reason to doubt the stabbing-and-kicking scenario, the eyes of some witnesses did seem improbably sharp.

“They didn’t seem scared,” Assad Jabar, 26, a cashier in a nearby restaurant, offered of the crowd’s two suspects. “They seemed determined to do this thing.” Upon reflection, the blood on the defiant one’s ankle could have gotten there in a disturbing variety of ways-not that this came as much of a comfort. After all, in happy countries, it is the custom of blood-stained youths retreating from murder scenes to disassociate themselves from the act.

In any event, many things were definitely true. It was definitely true that the blast sounded, as blasts sometimes do, more like an enormous thud: a herd of elephants dropping dead, God’s bedroom set falling to earth. It was definitely true that it instantly changed Basra’s channel from the regularly scheduled program of winding down for the weekend to a film-at-11 montage of smoke and sirens and hordes of people oddly eager to get close to rather than far from the scene, among them more than a few kids on banana-seat bicycles, pedaling toward trouble as if it were a Good Humor truck. (The man scrubbing the sidewalk in front of the Jundian Hotel continued, however, to make his circles of suds, exactly as before.)

It was definitely true that those assembled paid genuine, if ultimately mistaken, homage to the classic terrorist one-two punch of setting off one bomb to attract a crowd, and a second, larger bomb to slaughter it: Within 15 minutes of the initial blast, a rising murmur of “Car bomb! Car bomb!” swept over the crowd and made it charge, if just for a minute. It was definitely true that the people who set the bomb were not universally viewed as the only ones responsible for the bomb.

“The problem is between America and Al Qaeda!” screamed Hamad Maharous, 29. “It has nothing to do with the Iraqi people! Why did you bring this to us? In Saddam’s period, they wouldn’t dare to come to Iraq!”

Uttered in a Shia bastion that had sparked an uprising against Saddam Hussein almost exactly 13 years before, and that had rejoiced in his ouster almost exactly one year before, Hamad’s last remark hit a nerve. More importantly, though, it touched upon a truth about who is killing and being killed in Iraq in these killing-filled days. As anyone who looks can plainly see, it is mostly Iraqis who are dying in attacks aimed at foreigners. But it is not only in attacks aimed at foreigners that Iraqis are dying. Iraqis themselves are targeted by plain old criminals motivated by plain old greed-albeit plain old greed that has achieved a whole new level of dementia. (In Baghdad, I have a friend who has a friend who was kidnapped. His family gathered up a fat ransom and secured his release. A few weeks later, the same man was kidnapped by the same gang. Only the ransom demand, having increased, had changed.) And, especially in places like Basra, Iraqis are targeted because they are Shia, coalition-friendly or not.

It was his long beard, “scary face” and dark dishdasha that doomed the man in the eyes of the crowd after Thursday’s bombing, for these traits commonly mark the Wahabbi, and in a place like Basra at a time like the bombing, a Wahabbi is the last thing one could wish to be. Wahabbis are members of the extreme sect of Sunni Islam that rules in Saudi Arabia and, at its most perverse, fuels terrorist acts in New York and Madrid-and Basra, for its contempt for the West is perhaps matched only by its contempt for Shia Islam. Ever since the war, Shia communities have been whispering, murmuring and at times screaming about what they perceive as the infiltration of their areas by Wahabbis bent on destroying them.

Sometimes, as in the Al Asma’ayah section of Basra last week, such perceptions seem chillingly fair.

Rumor had it that there had been recent bomb threats against a school and a health clinic, neither of them particularly beneficiaries, let alone creatures, of the U.S.-led coalition. The rumors turned out to be false. At the July 14 Primary Health Care Center, Soad Hameed, a Liverpool-trained doctor, said that no, the threat had been directed only at the school. She said this so calmly that one would think that the school was in another province, rather than a few doors down.

As is often the case in Iraq, the school was actually two schools, divided into two shifts: Noor Al Hosain Intermediate came in the morning, and Al Forsan Secondary came in the afternoon. Here, too, the staff declared, there had never been a bomb threat.

There had simply been the bomb itself.

The bomb, which had been discovered about two weeks before, had been hand-made. It appeared to be a plastic brick wrapped in yellow, with two wires connected to it. It was placed on the inside window sill of a storage room that looked out on a playground that was, when I visited, full of boys playing soccer. Presumably planted during the midday change between the two schools’ shifts, the bomb was found by a 16-year-old boy. The school alerted the British, who came with one of their robots to dispose of it. It was not, the headmaster and some teachers concurred, a time bomb, nor a remote-controlled bomb, but the kind of bomb that would be activated by activity. Out on the playground, a teacher opened and shut the window in question by way of showing me how. Had, say, a boy kicked a soccer ball into the window, it would have blown up.

“It’s a problem between Wahabbi and Shia,” said Satttar Hashim Hamoud Al-Jazalani, a 50-year-old clothing seller. “It’s not because of the British.”

It was about an hour after Thursday’s car bomb. Sattar was standing on a second-floor balcony of his apartment building, across the street and up a bit from the corpse of the Mercedes. He had been standing outside when two reporters asked to enter the building so as to get a wide-angle view of the aftermath from the roof. Although he could easily have been forgiven for refusing, he agreed with a congeniality that was, under the circumstances, almost jarring.

“This is my home!” he exhaled, in English, leading up the staircase to his apartment. “Welcome, relax!”

Behind the apartment’s half-open door, Sattar’s black-swathed daughter could be seen urgently pouring a glass of water, as if disaster would strike should visitors cross the threshold without receiving instant refreshment.

As it happened, the visitors did not cross Sattar’s threshold, but that of his next-door neighbors, who had the balcony onto the street. By now, the street had gone from a boil to a simmer, and seemed to be trying to make up its mind whether to go back to a boil again. About 20 British Defender vehicles dotted the block in front of the Boraq Hotel, and red tape had been put up around the scene of the crime. As if on cue, angry young men had begun to hoot and throw stones, and the soldiers had started firing warning shots.

The phrase “Northern Ireland” is often invoked here by way of admiring shorthand for the British military’s un-American cool in dealing with civilian occupation. Right then, however, the phrase came not 100 percent happily to mind.

Sattar’s neighbors invited the reporters to sit down and sit out whatever nastiness might develop below. On their living-room wall hung a rendering of the Last Supper in Technicolor needlepoint.

“They are Christian, we are Muslim,” Sattar purred, as if to soothe, or say grace. “You are at home.”