Book market fire piles on the misery for broken Baghdad

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The Independent Online

"They are trying to destroy our history," shouted Dr Zaki Ghazi, waving his arms in anguish, as he stood by the smouldering remains of a building in an old quarter of Baghdad that is crowded with small bookshops.

An explosion had torn apart and set on fire the tall houses supported by white pillars on either side of al-Mutanabi Street's book market, where Iraqi intellectuals have shopped for decades.

"I have lost everything," said Munaf Fatah Mahmoud. "I had two shops with books on Iraqi folklore and they were both burnt. I have sold books here for 20 years and how am I going to feed my children?"

It was the latest blow to the tottering morale of Baghdad residents after a week that began with half a dozen rockets striking al-Rashid Hotel, symbol of the American presence in the capital. The next day four suicide bombers hit the Red Cross and the police stations, killed 40 people and wounded several hundred.

People rushed to take their children out of school and many parents have kept them at home all week for fear of more bombings. Outside a secondary school close to al-Jedida police station in north-east Baghdad, where a suicide bomber was caught after his car failed to explode, a nervous-looking security guard, said: "I am very frightened I will die if this happens again."

The explosion in al-Mutanabi Street came on Thursday evening, killing a tea-seller called Bassim and setting alight buildings on both sides of the street, which burnt fiercely for hours. At first the police said it was a time bomb. Later they thought it might be an exploding gas cylinder. People on al-Mutanabi street were convinced it was a mortar bomb - and Iraqis have unrivalled experience on what it is like to be on the receiving end of all sorts of ordnance. One resident even suspected that, in one of the poor tenements on al-Rashid street, somebody had been making a bomb, which had blown up.

Dr Ghazi, distraught at the sight of the damage, said: "This area is at the heart of Iraqi history and the Iraqi people's struggles. First we lost the museums. Now they are letting Arabs into the country to do things like this." Most people in Baghdad believe that the suicide bombings were the work of al-Qa'ida or the Arab Fedayeen, possibly allied to former Baathists. But they also distinguish between the suicide bombers, whom they contend could not possibly be Iraqi, and the insurgents who attack US troops. It was difficult to find an Iraqi who did not approve of the attack on al-Rashid Hotel because the US is blamed for failing to prevent al-Qa'ida getting into the country.

Not everybody in al-Mutanabi Street was despairing. Friday is the day that the book-sellers lay out their books on oil cloth on the street itself. Despite the explosion and devastating fire they were still selling books yesterday. Books by Shia clerics in Arabic lay side by side with Shakespeare, Dickens and works on the history of Iraq. Often the books were brought back by Iraqi students studying in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s.

Selling books in Iraq over the past 30 years was never a business for those easily intimidated. Al-Mutanabi Street was frequently raided under Saddam Hussein's regime in the hunt for banned political and religious books smuggled in from abroad, photocopied and secretly sold. Booksellers caught with a banned book were arrested, jailed and sometimes executed.

But overall the mood in Iraq is darkening as people fear that they may face years of turmoil, as seen in Lebanon after the beginning of the civil war in 1975. Paul Bremer, the head of the US-run civil administration, which is called the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), says that nobody notices the good things the CPA has done.

This is hardly surprising since America has failed to get a credible local television channel going, possibly because the contract was given to a US contractor with no experience. President Bush even boasted that satellite antennae were sprouting over Baghdad, while failing to notice that the Arab TV channels that viewers regularly watch are deeply hostile to the occupation.

The vacuum of real information is filled with rumours, which sweep Baghdad in a few hours from one end to the other of this city of five million people. The rumour, discussed in every street yesterday, was that the suicide bombers would return this morning and many Iraqis with jobs said they would stay away from work.

¿ A purported al-Qa'ida leader said in an e-mail sent before the latest string of bombings in Iraq that the terrorist network was preparing devastating attacks against Americans during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, an Arab magazine reported yesterday.