The death toll from Sunday’s car bombing in Baghdad just keeps climbing; Reuters says the Iraqi Health Ministry has now raised it to 292. 23 people are still hospitalized with injuries from the attack, but from what I can gather most of the increase in the number of dead has come from people who were previously classified as missing, not from people succumbing to their injuries. Buzzfeed’s Borzou Daragahi reported yesterday that locked emergency exit doors and a general negligence toward safety in a shopping mall next to the blast site may have caused more deaths than the blast itself:
Gen. Abdel Amir Shammari, head of Baghdad Operations, a joint force of police and soldiers that protects the Iraqi capital, said the initial blast at a mall in the upper-middle-class Karrada district was caused by C4 plastic explosives packed into a van. But he said the area around the shopping center was filled with “flammable materials” and that the paneling used for the building’s facade contributed as much, if not more, to the higher death toll. Responsibility for the bombing was later claimed by ISIS.
“The fire exits were closed specifically in that mall, and big numbers of people were in a café watching a football match,” Shammari said in a television interview late Tuesday night.
The bombing on Sunday was the deadliest terrorist attack in Baghdad’s recent history. Shammari’s allegation that Iraq’s incompetence contributed to the extraordinarily high death toll jibed with an account from Iraqi-British scholar Sajad Jiyad, who lives in Baghdad and lost a friend in the attack.
Like most buildings in Iraq, Jiyad said, the mall was designed with minimal fire safety features such as sprinklers. The building’s exterior was made of combustible plastic sheets, and the shops inside and outside the mall were filled with flammable materials. The nearest fire station was in another neighborhood and the fire engines that did arrive at the mall quickly ran out of water.
“The door to the roof was welded shut to prevent the entry of burglars,” he wrote in a blog post, after touring the bomb site. “The only way in and out of the building was through the single front entrance.”
This would seem to put to rest earlier reports that ISIS’s bomb contained napalm; the fires caused by the explosion would have come from those flammable materials, not from the bomb itself. Jiyad’s account of the scene is just horrifying and heartbreaking:
In all, it was everything needed for an inferno, and the explosion killed a small number of people instantly but the subsequent fire that spread quickly trapped people in the mall and burned them alive. Bodies that looked like they survived the fire were killed by smoke inhalation. In the basement several bodies were found huddled close together, a desperate attempt to protect each other in the final moments. One father’s burned corpse was found shielding his daughter’s. A scene of unimaginable horror, these people died while screaming for help as the flames consumed them. The nearest fire station is at Uqba ibn Nafi Square, too far away to respond quickly (Karrada should have its own) and when they did the water they carried in their fire engines ran out after a short while. One person survived miraculously by jumping into a chest freezer and was rescued before it had completely melted but that was the only such story I’ve heard. Inquiries and inquests rarely lead to results but I fear if the lessons are not learned from the Karrada fire then such disasters could easily occur again.
I know we barely blink anymore when this kind of violence is visited upon Baghdad, as it is on what seems like daily basis, but the terror and helplessness and pain these people felt was every bit as real as the terror and helplessness and pain felt by the people in the Bataclan or in the Brussels airport or in the Atatürk airport in Istanbul or in the nightclub in Orlando or in that bakery in Dhaka, and it demands our empathy just as much as those other attacks did.
But amid the horror of the attack and its aftermath, something happened yesterday that shouldn’t go unnoticed:
Those are Iraqis, hundreds of them, Sunni and Shiʿa, offering Eid prayers together at the site of the attack. If you can’t see the images, here’s a representative picture:
Something similar happened again today:
So much of ISIS’s ideology revolves around takfir, the idea that they have the right to determine who is or isn’t a Muslim. It tries to separate “true” Muslims (some Sunnis) from those it sees as unbelievers (Shiʿis, Sufis, and insufficiently pious Sunnis), to divide communities and then prey on those divisions to grow its numbers and its strength. Attacks like the one in Karrada are meant as much to force recalcitrant Sunnis to choose a side as they are to inflict pain on the Shiʿa community. The goal is to cause a Shiʿa backlash against Sunnis in general, leaving those Sunnis no choice but to make common cause with ISIS. But that only works if people respond the way ISIS wants them to respond, and in Karrada, so far, these people are choosing not to play ISIS’s game. Those scenes at the bomb site are a defeat for ISIS as surely as the loss of a town or an oil field would be.