After the bomb blast, the sky rained dried fruit, nuts, and candy.
It was shortly after noon on August 29, 2003, outside the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf, Iraq. I had just entered a long, narrow street leading to the shrine when the massive explosion shook its walls. I ran toward the smoke in what seemed like dead silence: I had been temporarily deafened by the blast. The alley had turned dark, as if in a sudden solar eclipse. And showering down on me from the swirling black plume were dried apricots, almonds, and brightly colored lozenges. I would learn later that they were from the street vendors’ carts lining the walls of the shrine, blown into the air by the explosion.
It would be many years before I understood that the Najaf bomb was to the Middle East’s sectarian conflict what Gavrilo Princip’s bullets were to the First World War—the single act of violence that would shatter an uneasy balance of ethnic forces, unleashing years of conflict, costing countless lives, and gradually trawling in some of the world’s major powers.
The Imam Ali shrine is the burial place of the man who gave rise to Shiite Islam, and is one of the sect’s holiest sites. The bomb had been hidden in the trunk of a car, close to one of the entrances to the shrine. It was timed to go off just after the Friday midday prayers, when Ayatollah Mohammed Baqr al-Hakim, the charismatic cleric groomed by Iran to become Iraq’s first Shiite leader, would emerge from the shrine. Nearly 100 people were killed, most of them from the direct impact of the blast, and others from the collapsing concrete roofs and walls of the shops along the arcade outside the shrine. More than 500 people were injured.