Reporting from Baghdad - The explosion rocked the busy square Wednesday as morning commuters were wolfing down breakfast and shopkeepers were opening for business. The death toll was relatively small: four.
But the psychological toll from the blast on Saadoun Street and from a string of attacks this week in Baghdad was big.
Iraqis in the square found themselves surrounded by the dead and wounded -- and the dread that came with realizing that their nightmare was not over, even if overall violence in the country was down.
"Our fears and concerns have come back after this series of explosions. This one especially frightened us a lot," said Ziad Shallal Shuraifi, a vendor on the busy street. "We are now afraid of any carton left near the roadside, any nylon bag, any car left near us."
It's no wonder. By nightfall, Iraqi police said 23 people were dead in attacks across Baghdad.
Since Monday, according to police statistics, roadside bombs, car bombs and suicide bombers wearing explosive belts have killed 58 people in the capital. Deaths elsewhere included two Christian women who police said were killed by unidentified gunmen in the northern city of Mosul, where Christians say they have been caught in the middle of a war for power between Kurds and Arabs.
Several Iraqis who witnessed the violence noted the heavy presence of Iraqi security checkpoints near Saadoun Street, in the eastern part of the capital, and elsewhere and said it showed that nobody could be trusted to keep them safe. Some also said it was a sign that Iraqi forces were not ready to protect the city if U.S. troops withdrew.
U.S. military officials said that this week's violence, coming after a steady downward trend in attacks, does not mean insurgents are staging a comeback, and they disputed the casualty figures provided by Iraqi sources.
Baghdad and its environs continue to experience an average of four attacks a day on security forces and civilians, compared with more than 20 a day about a year ago, Army Brig. Gen. William Grimsley, deputy commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad, said Monday after bombers killed 31 people in northeast Baghdad's Kasra district.
"We're in the post-Ramadan, pre-provincial election, post-U.S. election season," he said, attempting to explain how developments here and abroad could provoke insurgents to step up activities.
Violence traditionally picks up after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which ended in early October. Iraq's provincial elections, to be held this winter, have rival political groups jockeying for positions of power. And a perceived power vacuum in the White House until President-elect Barack Obama takes office Jan. 20 could encourage some groups to ratchet up the violence.
Baghdad residents at the scenes of some of the latest explosions had their own theories, some of which dovetailed with Grimsley's. Many linked the attacks to negotiations between the United States and Iraq over a security agreement that will govern the presence of U.S. forces in the country after the United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing U.S. forces in Iraq expires Dec. 31.
Rafid Mohsen Saffar, who has a clothing shop near the site of the Saadoun Street blast, linked the violence to neighboring Iran, which opposes the pact and wants to see U.S. troops leave Iraq.
"Some sides will increase the violence to have their influence on the security agreement," Saffar said.
Kamal Yaseen agreed, but he had his own conspiracy theory. "I don't rule out the idea that an American agent planted it [the Saadoun Street bomb] to send a message to the government that violence will persist if there is no security pact," he said.
To a police officer near the site of the Wednesday bombing, who did not want his name used because he was not authorized to speak to reporters, the attacks appeared to be the work of terrorists trying to prove they hadn't given up their fight.
"What kind of courage is it to leave a car and detonate it remotely?" he said, referring to the vehicle that was left to explode in a parking lot.
The blast occurred about 9:30 a.m. Survivors knocked to the ground found themselves on pavement splashed with blood and littered with glass. The rush-hour timing and the location, in a mainly Shiite Muslim area, were similar to other attacks this week.
About 8 a.m. Monday, blasts ripped through a street lined with cafes and shops in Kasra. Police said 31 people died, including five schoolgirls trapped in a bus. And about 5 p.m. Wednesday, during the evening shopping rush, twin bombs tore through a crowded market, killing 14 people and wounding 67.
"The safety is just for the officials and ministers. The victims here are me and you, the helpless people," said a man who gave his name as Ali, a witness to the Kasra explosions.
A waiter in Kasra, Mohammed Kareem, said he recently had begun to feel safe. "But now, after this explosion, I don't feel safe even in my own neighborhood," he said.
"There were a lot of soldiers in the street . . . so who planted the bombs?" he asked. "How did they let them do that? . . . So who can you trust?"
Salman, Redha and Susman are Times staff writers.
Times special correspondents in Baghdad and Mosul contributed to this report.