Despite danger, desperate workers drawn to town square

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Workers know a trip to the square could mean death, and still they go.

Every day, laborers crowd downtown Tayaran Square, the scene of nine bombings in the past three years, according to Iraq's Interior Ministry. But with unemployment as high as 60 percent, men survive on the jobs they find here - jobs that pay an average $10 a day.

They faced their latest challenge Tuesday when attackers staged a suicide attack that left at least 76 people dead and more than 200 injured, the Interior Ministry reported. The nation's leaders condemned the attack and promised to investigate, but workers complain that the government offers little relief from a cycle of poverty and violence that is pushing them toward extremism.

Ali Naji, 32, avoided the square as long as he could. He returned Tuesday because he desperately needed the money. One of the car bombs exploded as he watched a group of fellow laborers eating breakfast.

"I saw their flesh shattered," Naji said.

Witnesses saw a pickup driver approach the square before 7 a.m., collect several workers and leave. Soon after, a second driver appeared, slamming into a group of workers and detonating his car, said witness Swadi Hussein, 28. After police responded to the first blast, the pickup driver returned, drove into the patrol and detonated his truck, Hussein said.

"As soon as the first explosion happened I wanted to run, but my legs wouldn't move," said Hussein, who sells second-hand clothes at the market on the square. "I was too shocked to do anything." Hussein blacked out and came to in the hospital with glass embedded in his head.

Interior Ministry Chief of Operations Abdul-Kareem Khalaf said the bombing was retaliation for raids this week by ministry investigators who killed 17 insurgents and detained 32 others. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is Shiite, called the attack a "horrible massacre" and promised a thorough investigation.

Workers at Tayaran are poor, mostly Shiite Muslims. Some are professionals, college graduates who lost their jobs and businesses as Iraq's economy faltered the past three years. Others are craftsmen unable to find steady work.

They stand in the square, at the intersection of Nidhal Street and the busy road leading to the city center, in front of the stores that rent them dirt compactors, concrete makers and other construction equipment. Sometimes they sit at the stalls of vendors on the corner who sell them sweet tea, fried eggplant, potato sandwiches and falafel and remember better days, years ago, when the vendors barely could keep up with the number of customers.

One day last week, the crowd included a father caring for his sick daughter, a youth trying to provide for his elderly parents and a would-be groom who just wanted to be able to furnish an apartment for his bride.

As jobs dry up across the city, workers are becoming more desperate.

"The lucky ones are well off if they had one or two days work during the past two weeks," said Hussein Abdul Jabbar, 37, a former carpenter who came to wait in the square with his brother last week.

3 Marines killed

Three Marines were killed in combat in volatile Anbar province, the U.S. command said Tuesday.

The three Marines assigned to 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing died Monday of wounds sustained fighting insurgents, according to a statement.

The U.S. military said those killed were not linked to a hard landing Monday by a Marine helicopter in Anbar. At least 18 people were injured in that incident but hostile fire did not appear to be the cause, the military said.