BAGHDAD, Iraq—An explosion rocked the central Baghdad book market Thursday, killing a street vendor, setting several buildings on fire and mystifying witnesses about whether it was a new twist in the violence wracking the Iraqi capital or some sort of accident.
There were no readily apparent targets in the neighborhood, such as government offices or police stations, that could be linked to the U.S.-led coalition forces or their Iraqi allies.
Some residents thought the blast was a bomb aimed at bookshops selling literature for or against the Saddam Hussein regime. Others said Muslim extremists may have attacked because some shops sold Western books or music. Still others whispered that a bomb had gone off while being transported somewhere else. The U.S. military even was investigating whether the explosion might have been caused by a propane tank.
"I'm certain it was a time bomb left in a gas can," said Capt. Faysal Makey, an Iraqi police officer. He said he had no idea why it would have been left in the area.
An hour later, two roadside bombs exploded simultaneously on either side of 14th of July Street. That target was obvious: two U.S. military Humvees that were rolling past. One was wrecked and two military police officers were injured, an Army officer at the scene said.
The explosions were the latest in a wave of violence that has killed 36 people and injured about 250 this week.
The earlier explosion, on al Motanaby Street near the intersection of Rasheed Street in Baghdad's Old Quarter, struck an area of ancient three-story buildings packed along narrow, column-lined streets and filled with bookstores and print shops, many selling religious literature.
The street was largely empty after nightfall, as crowds headed home to break their Ramadan fasts with their families. The blast set a three-story building on fire, which quickly spread to adjacent structures. Iraqi firefighters attempted to stem the blaze with a fire truck as a U.S. tank stood guard.
Mohammed Daway was guarding a luggage store nearby when he heard the explosion. "I heard people screaming and yelling for help, to get to the hospital," he said. "I saw a man crawling on the ground as he tried to escape the fire."
The dead tea seller's stand stood twisted in front of the Abara restaurant. The stainless steel teapot lay dented among broken tea glasses and charred timbers on the bloodstained street.
"I feel so bad for the tea seller," said restaurant owner Hosam Chy Chym. "But what can we do for him? What can we do for his family? Why is this happening? There is nowhere that is safe."
In the roadside bomb attack, one military policeman was wounded and another suffered serious hearing loss, said Maj. Scott Patton of the 427th Field Artillery. Patton said the two devices probably were made of C-4 explosive and detonated by a trigger on a wire, rather than by remote control.
The blast twisted guardrails and a nearby wrought-iron fence, and left 2-foot-wide craters on either side of the highway.
An artillery shell later was discovered nearby, but Patton said he didn't know if it was related to the roadside bombs or had been there undiscovered since coalition forces took the city last spring.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ