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Iraq: In the bunker

A wave of bombs, a dark anniversary, and a war that won't go away.

Smoke rises from the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs after a truck bomb attack in Baghdad August 19, 2009. A series of explosions killed at least 75 people and wounded more than 300 in central Baghdad on Wednesday, the deadliest day in the Iraqi capital since U.S. troops withdrew from urban centers in June. (Thaier al-Sudani/Reuters)

BAGHDAD – In the concrete bunker I was huddled in after a mortar attack Wednesday morning, the sound of a ton of explosives detonating outside of Iraq’s Foreign Ministry shook the ground.

As Iraqi forces responsible for the country’s security pulled out bodies of the dead and evacuated the wounded, Iraqi confidence in their ability to protect their own population was shaken even more.

In a nearly-forgotten war with shifting tactics and little logic, it’s unlikely we’ll know whether insurgents deliberately chose the anniversary of the bombing of UN headquarters in Baghdad six years ago to launch a wave of the same kind of attacks that toppled UN headquarters here.

UN officials deliberating whether to cancel a press conference to commemorate the event after the mortar attack said they thought they might have.

I’d covered the bombing of the UN in 2003, reporting live from the site as envoy Sergio Viera de Mello and 21 others were pulled from the rubble. With most of the war still to come, it was an event so traumatic that it forever shattered the illusion that anyone in Iraq could be safe.

Six years later the players have changed positions – the Spanish crackling on the security radios in the bunker was from the Peruvian security contractors and not the accents of American soldiers now back on their bases. But listening to explosions while I was again trying to get to the UN, it felt as if this war might never end. Iraqi security has been making erratic but significant progress since the U.S. and Iraqi surge two years ago helped disrupt insurgent networks and stop sectarian violence. The U.S. military likes to point to charts showing attacks are down dramatically from a year ago and has only recently acknowledged that the number of Iraqi casualties is at least as important an indicator.

June 30, when U.S. combat troops withdrew from the cities was hailed as a victory on both sides – the U.S. was overjoyed to see the Iraqis take responsibility for security and Iraqis were positively gleeful that occupying troops were no longer in their streets.

But there’s a cost to that self-congratulation. And part of it came due on Wednesday.

Just down the road from the foreign ministry is an open highway that used to be a traffic-snarling checkpoint. It was dismantled earlier this year, along with some of the concrete blast walls, when security started to improve.

At the foreign ministry on Wednesday, as darkness fell on the tangled wrecks of cars, burned trees and shattered buildings, that road is where residents laid blame.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/iraq/090819/iraq-the-bunker