Bombing shatters Baghdad's calm

BAGHDAD — A remote-controlled bomb exploded in the middle of a crowded Baghdad pet market Friday morning, killing at least 13 people, wounding 57, ending a two-month lull in major attacks in the Iraqi capital and raising fears that recent improvements in security may not last.

Sometime before 9 a.m., witnesses said, someone detonated an improvised bomb hidden in a pile of trash in the Ghazal Bazaar in central Baghdad, where salesmen gather once a week to sell birds, monkeys, tropical fish and other animals.

Afterward, witnesses described the dead lying among birds, snakes, rabbits, cats and dogs. Shop owners pulled out the injured on carts because the streets were too crowded for ambulances to pass. Others ran away, saying they feared a second attack.

In Warsaw, meanwhile, new Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk announced that the country would withdraw its approximately 900 troops from Iraq by the end of the year. The Poles, one of the largest contributors to the Multi-National Force in Iraq after the U.S. and Britain, lead a 10-nation contingent of about 2,000 soldiers in central-southern Iraq.

The pet market, which was last attacked Jan. 26, is one of the few places in Baghdad where crowds gather regularly, and Friday's attack was the deadliest in the city since Sept. 26, when twin bombings killed at least 32 people in Bayaa, a mostly Shiite Muslim neighborhood in western Baghdad.

People "come here just to forget their daily life routine. Some go to the park on Mutanbi Street and the rest come here," said Ahmed Ali, 47, who owns a carpet shop a few feet from the bombing. Even though violence in the capital has dropped, he said, "We were expecting this."

Ali said that a motorcycle laden with explosives had tried to enter the market a week ago, but a checkpoint run by Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr's Mahdi Army militia had stopped it.

In the last month, violence in Baghdad has declined and some residents have begun returning to their homes and venturing out of their neighborhoods. Indeed, the Iraqi government has campaigned for citizens to return to their neighborhoods.

On Friday, however, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees warned against reports that large numbers of Iraqis are returning from Syria, where they're often living as impoverished and stateless exiles.

The UNHCR "does not believe that the time has come to promote, organize or encourage returns" given the volatile and unpredictable security situation in Iraq, spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis said in Geneva.

The Bush administration and its allies have hailed the decline in violence as a major victory, even a turning point in the war, but most Baghdad residents call the sudden calm unsettling and say they fear that the violence will return. They say they don't know what might trigger another spike in violence, but they think that one explosion is likely to send people fleeing again.

Also on Friday, Baghdad police said they'd found six bodies, and two journalists said they'd survived an assassination attempt while traveling through central Baghdad. In Mosul, in northern Iraq, a car bomber killed two police officers and three other people at a police checkpoint.

(Kadhim is a McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent.)