Iraq: In the bunker

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.

“If the checkpoint was there and the police were doing their jobs this wouldn’t have happened,” said a bus driver looking at the wreckage of what used to be his bus. Some blamed al-Qaeda in Iraq and former Baathists for the attack. But mostly they blamed their own police for letting it happen.

After the active nightmare of the bombing, by evening the street had the feel of a bad dream – amid the groups of curious young men, a ministry employee walked with blood seeping through the bandage on his head. An anguished mother stumbling over her shoes asked everyone if they’d seen her missing daughter.

For the U.S., part of the price of withdrawing from Baghdad was giving up some of the intelligence gathering on insurgents that goes along with having 25,000 soldiers on the ground – a point acknowledged by General Odierno this week.

“It’s not the same but that’s part of our way ahead. We have to allow the Iraqis to do this,” he said, describing a spike in attacks last month as insurgents "testing the waters."

On Wednesday evening, with the death count nearing 100 and the wounded five times more, the Baghdad security spokesman took the nearly unprecedented step of saying that Iraqi security forces were to blame for allowing the attacks to happen. Just days from the start of what is normally the festive month of Ramadan, when the midnight to 5 a.m. curfew was about to be lifted, Prime Minister Maliki said he would "re-evaluate" security – almost certainly the prelude to a crackdown.

On the street outside the foreign ministry, the mini-bus driver examining his wrecked vehicle fell back to the Iraqi default setting of skepticism.

“It doesn’t make any difference if the Americans are here or not – this will never stop.”