Bricks and plaster blew inward from the wall, as the windows all shattered and I fell to the floor--whether from the shock wave, or just fright, it wasn't clear. The blast was so loud it sounded as if the building couldn't possibly stand, but it did. Toaster-size chunks of twisted metal fell in the yard and banged off the roof; later they'd be identified as pieces of a U.S. Army Humvee, blown up by a suicide car bomb a full block away. No one was hurt in that building, which had been heavily blast-protected. But at an Iraqi house next door, several children were injured. Out on the street, at least one U.S. soldier was killed and three badly wounded; three Iraqi passersby were incinerated in their car, which was so badly mangled that it took wailing relatives more than a day to extract the corpses.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the incident was that it scarcely made the news. It was just another among a recent surge of terrorist attacks, one of two suicide car bombs that day in the Mansour neighborhood of Baghdad. Besides, everyone was focused on the discovery of the headless corpse of American Jack Hensley, 48, found floating in the Tigris River. Gruesome videos of Hensley's beheading and that of fellow American Eugene (Jack) Armstrong, 52, played on Islamic Web sites. Armstrong's body was later dropped off only five blocks away from his home, also in the upscale Mansour neighborhood.
In a way that bombs and bullets don't, the agony of the 23 hostages now being held hits hard with Westerners here. It's not difficult to imagine yourself blindfolded and kneeling in a jihadi snuff film. The 140 hostages taken since April include a score of nationalities and people of many professions. Truckdrivers, journalists, missionaries, businessmen--all have been targets. Many hostages have been released, but not recently. Of 28 people killed, 24 had their final screams recorded on tape and bandied about the Web. It's a form of terrorism that's deeply personal and, as in Beirut in the 1980s, disproportionately effective.
The day after Hensley's body was found, his surviving colleague, Briton Kenneth Bigley, 62, was shown in a video as he wept and pleaded with his prime minister to help him. "Please, please," he said, "I need you to help me, Mr. Blair. You are the only one who can help me. I need to live, I want to live..." His captors are from the Tawhid and Jihad group, led by Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian terrorist with Qaeda ties. It was apparently al-Zarqawi--identified by the CIA from a voiceprint--who had personally cut the Americans' throats as they struggled and screamed; he then severed their heads and held them up for a bloody close-up--in one case, casually gouging out the victim's eye. Later, another group, calling itself Followers of Zawahiri (after the Qaeda No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri), boasted that they had beheaded two Italian antiwar activists, Simona Pari and Simona Torretta, who had been snatched from their Baghdad home on Sept. 7. But no film emerged, and Italian officials said they believed the claim to be a hoax.
Throughout Italy, people hung white sheets from their windows in reply to a Vatican appeal to show solidarity with the two Simonas. In Britain, Bigley's extraordinary plea stirred up strong antiwar feelings, putting Blair in an awkward position on the eve of Labour's party conference. "I feel desperately for Kenneth Bigley and his family," said the Conservative opposition leader, Michael Howard. "And I feel for Blair, too, who is in the most unenviable predicament." Blair telephoned Bigley's family twice to express his sympathy, but refused to give in to al-Zarqawi's demands.
That same day in Washington, President George W. Bush mentioned the beheadings only in passing, as he shared a podium with Iraqi interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi in the White House Rose Garden. "We're sickened by the atrocities. But we'll never be intimidated. And freedom is winning." For his part, the Iraqi leader blamed the press for the bad images. "In 15 out of our 18 Iraqi provinces we could hold elections tomorrow," he said. "Although this is not what we see in your media, it is a fact."
Much of that media, ourselves included, were in virtual hiding last week, as were nearly all foreign civilians--hostages have even included Russians, French and 12 Nepalese workers, who were assassinated without any plausible justification. Intelligence that criminal gangs are kidnapping foreigners and selling them to terrorist groups has increased fears about moving around Iraq. Heavily armed convoys of contractors' SUVs, once a common sight, have all but disappeared from busy roads. "The only serious reconstruction going on now," said one Western businessman, "is inside the Green Zone," the heavily fortified area that houses Iraqi government and American Embassy offices. "We're trapped in a rat's cage," said an ambassador from a non-Coalition country in Europe who no longer leaves his bunkerlike residential compound. "No area of Baghdad is risk-free." Many foreign companies have suspended operations. Even major news organizations are finding it difficult to staff the story: "We just can't find senior correspondents who will come to Iraq now," said the bureau chief for one major American newspaper.
Iraqis suffer most. In the same week the American hostages were taken and killed, at least 300 Iraqis died from terrorist attacks. Some 45 Iraqi translators working for the American military have been killed in Baghdad. The most recent case occurred last Monday, when a woman was gunned down in her car at 2 p.m. Terrorists also killed a top official of the state-owned Northern Oil Co. last week, while two moderate Sunni sheiks were kidnapped and killed in Baghdad.
U.S. officials say the climate of fear has not stalled rebuilding. "It's utterly, utterly untrue that we've abandoned reconstruction," said Col. Jeffrey Phillips, deputy director of the Project and Contracting Office at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. "I wouldn't say it's put on hold," Phillips said. "I would say certain projects are put on hold, what they call the 'out years,' but we're still pressing ahead with projects closer to hand." Priority is given to projects where security is established. "If you build it up and they blow it up, it doesn't take the two of us to figure out it's counterproductive." U.S. officials denied speculation that many embassy staffers had been leaving Iraq recently. However, the State Department has had a hard time staffing the embassy in Baghdad, which is at only 50 to 60 percent of authorized strength, one official said, despite pay bonuses of 50 percent and more. "The only thing that will get people there is money," said an official in Washington. Everyone has to ask himself whether the risks are worth it.