As he stumbled away from the scene, clutching at his thigh, he remembers thinking: "How can this happen here?" Within an hour, as the news of the latest terror attack spread through the Iraqi capital, all of Baghdad was asking the same question: how did a car bomb get into in the heart of the city's security establishment, the high-security compound of the Baghdad police headquarters?
It will likely be days before investigators come up with an answer, but the immediate assumption of many of those at the scene was that it could only have been an inside job. The bomb went off in the car park of the compound, which houses the police academy and the offices of Hassan Ali, the U.S.-appointed police chief. Although his office was damaged, he was not in the building at the time. Unconfirmed reports said one policeman was killed and 20 injured.
It is unclear whether Ali was the target, or whether the bombers had meant to hit the policemen training under American supervision in the academy. No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack.
It’s not surprising that Iraqi policemen are targets. Saddam loyalists and Islamist groups have condemned local cops for cooperating with coalition forces and threatened them with dire consequences. But it is astonishing that the attackers were able to penetrate into the police HQ. The compound, in the shadow of the giant Interior Ministry building, is heavily guarded by U.S. soldiers as well as local policemen. To enter the compound, the car would have had to pass through at least three checkpoints in less than 300 yards. "Only somebody with the right papers could have made it through the guards," says Jabbar. Brigadier Munem Abdul Khalek, a senior officer at the scene, said it was too early to say how the explosion was triggered, but ruled out a suicide bombing. The full extent of the damage is unknown; U.S. soldiers barred journalists from the site. The main road leading to the compound was blocked by Hummers and APCs. Two Blackhawk helicopters circled the site overhead. A few ambulances were allowed into the area immediately after the blast, but when a fleet of 10 ambulances arrived an hour later, they were waved back.
Eye-witnesses said more than a dozen cars had been destroyed. Tariq Juwaid, a former police staff sargent who had lined up near the car park with other ex-cops seeking readmission into the force, saw over a dozen policemen lying bleeding on the ground immediately after the blast. "Many of them were lying in pools of blood," he says. Razak Saleh, another ex-cop, says he tried to help two of the injured but they were motionless: "I'm no doctor, but I can tell when a man is dead, and those two had already gone to Allah."
The blast was smaller than the explosions at the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf last week and at the United Nations HQ the week before, but it was no less audacious in its choice of target. And it will likely have a greater impact than those blasts on the psyche of ordinary Iraqis. "If the police headquarters can be bombed," says Hani Humaileh Obaid, who had come to the compound for identity papers confiscated by the cops, "then no place is safe for Iraqis."