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By Salam Faraj
Baghdad - A car bomb ripped through Baghdad's oldest book market on Monday, killing 28 people and wounding dozens in the latest assault on a US-Iraqi plan aimed at stemming bloodshed in the capital.
The attack struck the symbolic heart of Iraq's intellectual life, Mutanabi Street, an ancient centre of learning and culture and a rare diversion for the capital's war-weary citizens.
Acrid dust enveloped the streets and the minarets of a nearby mosque, as dark plumes of smoke stained the blue spring skies over the Tigris.
Many shops packed with the dry pages of books caught fire and the market was littered with body parts and blood-splattered pages.
One witness, Mohammed Salman, was searching for his brother.
"I hope he's in the hospital," Salman said. "There are many body parts all around. It is impossible to identify them."
According to him, the bomb exploded outside a cultural centre where many people had gathered as usual to discuss politics and literature.
Bookshop owner Naim al-Shatry was in tears.
"The killing of books is worse than the killing of people because people have only limited life whereas books live forever," he said.
"The terrorists are trying to kill knowledge," he added.
"Today they have killed the books in our oldest market."
Another witness, who would not be named, said Al-Mutanabi was famed throughout the world.
"It has been a place where many of our Arab and foreign friends come to visit. Now it is destroyed."
Another Bookshop owner, Mohammed Hamid, was distraught.
"My library is destroyed completely," he said.
"I had so many encyclopedias and historical books but they are all destroyed."
Iraqis regard Al-Mutanabi, crammed with bookshops and frequented by writers, poets and artists, as one of the most important centres in the literary world.
It was opened in 1932 by King Faisal II, and is named after Arab poet Abu Taib al-Mutanabi.
The blast came despite a massive Iraqi-US security operation involving more than 90 000 troops, launched just over two weeks ago and aimed at quelling the sectarian violence that has ravaged the capital and other parts of the country for more than a year.
As part of the operation, hundreds of Iraqi and US troops are conducting search operations in Sadr City, once a no-go zone controlled by Shia militias that has been the scene of running street battles.
The house-to-house searches are testing the resolve of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to back US-led forces in going after militants in the stronghold of one of his allies, radical anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Al-Sadr's militiamen have disappeared into the shadows since a joint operation by Iraqi and US forces was launched in the capital to flush out Sunni insurgents and Shia militiamen.
The operation in Sadr City, which on its first day on Sunday drew no resistance but also saw no arrests, is sweeping through the same streets where US-led forces engaged Shia militias in bitter battles in 2004.
Iraqi and coalition forces caught 36 suspected terrorists in raids around Iraq yesterday, the US military said.
The deputy US commander in Iraq however warned that the security crackdown in Baghdad is a long-term operation and it will take at least six to nine months to hand security over to Iraqis.
"We're starting to see some progress, but it's very slow," Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno told CNN television. "We expect it to be because we think this will take months, not weeks, to accomplish."
Muharib Abdullah and five other al-Qaeda militants were picked up in a raid on Sunday at Dhuluiyah, north of the capital, said interior ministry operations director Brigadier General Abdel Karim Khalaf.
In other violence, two Shia pilgrims setting off by foot from Baghdad for a religious ceremony in Karbala, south of the capital, were killed and five others wounded in an attack by unknown gunmen, a security official said.
Also yesterday, a policeman was killed and another injured in a suicide car bombing in the capital's western Adil district, police said.
The attack targeted a police patrol, a police official said.