On a clear hot day near the end of October 2003, I was finishing breakfast in my Baghdad hotel room when the distant thud of an immense explosion shivered the windows. In Iraq we had long since become accustomed to sporadic attacks of various kinds, but it soon became apparent that this was something new. The next blast, equally huge, came around fifteen minutes later, while we were running down to our car. Another followed soon after that, as we were heading downtown; and then another. Whatever was going on, it was definitely big. As we neared the center of the city we could see a plume of smoke rising into the sky. We stopped to ask passersby and policemen what had happened. “They hit the Red Cross,” someone told us. That had been the first explosion. Subsequent attacks, it seemed, were targeting police stations all around the city. And it wasn’t over yet.
By the time we reached the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the police and rescue services had cordoned off the site, but they couldn’t hide the devastation. The front of the building had evaporated into a blackened muddle of bricks and concrete. The burned-out hulks of cars lined the street. One bystander told us that you could still see the incinerated bodies of their occupants sitting upright inside. The smell of burning rubber and charred metal made our eyes water. It was a sweltering day to begin with, but the added heat of the lingering fire made everything around us shimmer.
We began to query onlookers. One man in his twenties, a member of an Iraqi aid organization, had just finished a meeting with a friend in the building. As he was driving away, he was jolted by the blast. “There was an enormous boom and suddenly all this gravel was raining down on my car,” he told me. “The car bounced up and down.” The fate of the friend was unknown, but it was safe to assume that he was dead. Other witnesses told us that the attacker had driven into the entrance of the compound in an ambulance, wearing the uniform of a paramedic. He had blown himself up with the car.
By the time it was all over we would realize that we had witnessed one of the bloodiest days in Baghdad since the beginning of the US occupation. Dozens were dead, hundreds wounded, all Iraqis except for one American soldier. The day’s campaign had been a masterpiece of coordination: the six attacks had taken place within a little more than an hour. In addition to the Red Cross, five police stations had been targeted. In one case the police, warned by their colleagues, had opened fire as the would-be bomber sped toward them in an SUV, throwing grenades as he went. The defenders had managed to immobilize the car and capture the bomber. He turned out to be a Syrian, who cursed his captors for …