The book market along Mutanabi Street was a throwback to the Baghdad of old, the days of students browsing for texts, turbaned clerics hunting down religious tomes and cafe intellectuals debating politics over backgammon.
Somehow it had survived the war, until Monday, when a powerful suicide car bomb hit the market, slicing through the heart of the capital’s intellectual scene. It killed at least 20 people and wounded more than 65.
In the hours after the noontime explosion, books and stationery, some still tied in charred bundles, littered the block. Plumes of black smoke billowed above ornate buildings dating to the Ottoman Empire. The storied Shahbandar cafe, where elderly writers puffed away the afternoon on water pipes, lay in ruins.
Firefighters unleashed powerful sprays of water, only to have flames reignite because the paper had been transformed into kindling.
This part of Baghdad dates back centuries, to the era when the Abbasid caliphate ruled over the Islamic world. On Monday, victims lacerated by shrapnel were carried over shards of glass here to waiting ambulances.
“There are no Americans or Iraqi politicians here — there are only Iraqi intellectuals who represent themselves and their homeland, plus stationery and book dealers,” said Abdul Baqi Faidhullah, 61, a poet who frequently visits the street. “Those who did this are like savage machines intent on harvesting souls and killing all bright minds.”
The bombing was the latest of a half-dozen major blasts aimed at civilians in the capital in the three weeks since the Iraqi government and American military announced the start of a new Baghdad security plan. The number of gunshot killings attributed to sectarian death squads appears to have dropped — militia leaders have ordered their followers to lie low. But deadly bombings have continued with ferocity.
American officials have said they are still struggling to tamp down on the bombings, and intend to bring in thousands of additional troops into Baghdad over the next two months.