BAGHDAD — Just before U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters in the Green Zone Wednesday that safety and security for Iraq are within reach, a car bomb rocked a nearby neighborhood in what appeared to be the deadliest blast in Baghdad since September.
Police said at least 14 people were killed and 33 were injured when the bomb exploded around 5 p.m. in Karrada, a bustling Shiite-majority neighborhood that abuts the Green Zone.
The explosion wasn't audible in the confines of the Green Zone building where Gates met with reporters, but it was heard throughout much of central Baghdad, where such blasts have become relatively rare. In July, a truck bomb collapsed buildings in the neighborhood and killed at least 50 and perhaps as many as 90.
Gates said that his discussions with Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki focused on how to sustain the current lull in violence and prepare Iraqis to police themselves. One large U.S. military unit will leave this month, and four more are scheduled to withdraw by the end of July.
"More than ever, I believe that a secure, stable, democratic Iraq is within reach," Gates said. "We need to be patient, but we also need to be absolutely resolved in our desire to see the nascent signs of hope across Iraq expand and flourish, so that all Iraqis can enjoy peace and prosperity."
More than 70,000 people have signed on to citizen militias, he said, adding that there are plans to incorporate them into Iraqi security forces or find them other job opportunities.
Still, violence in Iraq is a way of life. Outside Baghdad, police said at least eight people were killed and 28 were injured Wednesday when car bombs exploded in Kirkuk, Baqouba and Mosul.
Muhammed Arubayee, head of the Karrada neighborhood, said Gates' visit probably spurred the attack.
Karrada, a busy shopping district known for fine clothes, shoes and handbags, was packed with shoppers preparing for Eid al Adha, a four-day festival later this month that celebrates the annual Muslim pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, when the bomb exploded in a parked car. One building was destroyed, and six storefronts were damaged.
But most merchants remained open, and an hour later, shoppers were stepping over debris to continue on their way.
Hadi Mohammad, 20, said he was only 30 feet from the car when it exploded. His friends were selling used clothing at a table next to the bomb; one was killed, two were injured.
"I was lucky; my friends were not," he said.
(Gumbrecht reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. Kadhim is a McClatchy special correspondent.)