MUSAYYIB, Iraq—This humble Iraqi farm town along the Euphrates River once was known for an age-old tune about a tormented lover waiting for his sweetheart on the bridge to Musayyib.
That storied bridge was closed to locals Monday, as townsfolk contemplated the rubble left after a suicide bomber blew himself up next to a fuel tanker Saturday, killing nearly 100 people in a shower of flames and shrapnel.
How did a town known for a love song become a meeting place for killers of every stripe?
Foreign fighters slipping across the Saudi border use Musayyib as a rest stop en route to Baghdad. Homegrown rebels from nearby Anbar province easily pass through lax checkpoints to plant roadside bombs aimed at American convoys. Gangs and bandits roam the streets in hopes of kidnapping rich merchants. Rival Shiite Muslim militias are fighting a vicious war for control of the town's coffers.
Musayyib's estimated 10,000 residents are hostages of geography. They're too far south to benefit from Baghdad's heightened security measures and yet not southern enough to fall into the relatively stable Shiite heartland.
They're in just the right place, however, to attract the spillover from middle Euphrates villages so rife with sectarian bloodshed that Iraqis call the area the "Triangle of Death."
"This is the front line for battling terrorism," said Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi, who invited a Knight Ridder reporter to accompany him Monday on a tour of the destruction. "These poor people, already destitute, and then to have their lives disrupted by people fighting for some esoteric cause. ... They need a lot of help."
Flanked by his heavily armed Iraqi bodyguards, Chalabi's first stop was Musayyib General Hospital, where the stench of dead bodies wafted through blood-spattered halls.
Ward after ward was filled with burned and shrapnel-stabbed residents who had been strolling in the marketplace or heading to prayers when the bomb went off outside a mosque for Shiites, the sect to which most of Musayyib belongs.
"I lost my son, 12 years old. My only son," Saheb Mahdi Ibrahim wailed from his hospital bed. Like other patients, he had cotton packed in his ears, apparently to stop bleeding caused by the deafening blast.
At least 68 people were killed on the spot, including three dozen whose incinerated remains have yet to be identified. Another 30 later bled to death or succumbed to third-degree burns, and the death toll is expected to rise, said Dr. Ahmed Ibrahim, a haggard man with dark rings around his eyes.
Ibrahim performed 20 operations on the night of the bombing and is still tending to many of the 85 wounded.
He led Chalabi to the bedsides of patients with bandaged limbs and bleeding wounds. One wounded man had lost 11 relatives in the bombing. A woman in a long black robe sobbed softly for her dead nephew at the bedside of a wounded brother. The doctor left no doubt that he blamed Sunni Muslim insurgents for the attack.
"This explosion was against people who were purely civilians," Ibrahim said. "There were no soldiers, no police, no Americans. The only reason we're targeted is because we're from another sect."
A thin sheet covered Said Merza's legs, which resembled charcoal as much as human flesh. In a weak voice, the 35-year-old Merza begged for news of his missing brother, with whom he had been walking in the marketplace when the explosion occurred. Chalabi held his hand, told him he would try his best to help, then moved on to the next bed.
"Find a solution," Merza called. "Just find a solution to this."
But, as Chalabi learned from his next stop, at the local police headquarters, there were no easy solutions for Musayyib.
Local and provincial police commanders complained that infiltrators from Sunni tribes were supplying information to the insurgents. An Iraqi colonel who oversees two platoons in the area said 80 of the 200 or so Iraqi troops stationed there had been injured in attacks.
The Defense Ministry sent three extra platoons to the area to help after the bombing, but there aren't enough fully trained Iraqi forces to spare more for Musayyib. Policing the wide swath of land to the border with Saudi Arabia was a dream.
"Do you have weapons?" Chalabi asked, with a pained look.
"Well, we get ammunition from the terrorists we raid," replied Musayyib Police Chief Ahmed Shammari. "The terrorists come with brand-new cars, brand-new weapons."
At the blackened square, Chalabi's next stop, virtually every wall still standing was covered with funeral banners. The charred cylinder from the fuel tanker had been hauled around a corner. For blocks around the scene, survivors watched from windows with no glass.
The politician hopped out to survey the mosque, its broken loudspeakers dangling from a scarred minaret. A rank soup of blood and oil still covered the ground, reaching to his ankles. His entourage gazed at the surrounding soot-covered balconies. Authorities said some women had tossed their children from them in a split-second gamble on a four-story fall over encroaching flames. The children died anyway, authorities said.
After about five minutes, Chalabi shook his head and climbed back into his car.
Perhaps hoping to end his visit on a more positive note, Chalabi wanted to squeeze in a trip to the crown jewel of local reconstruction, a new power plant and refinery that will process thousands of barrels of crude oil a day once completed and give a much-needed boost to Iraq's dilapidated electrical grid.
To get to the plant, Chalabi had to cross the Euphrates. As his convoy snaked over the Musayyib Bridge, coalition troops from El Salvador waved hello.
But at the plant he learned that only a handful of workers had shown up for work Monday.
"Right now," said Carl Bloomfield, a West Virginian who serves as the project's superintendent, "I don't know how many of my workers got killed."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.