BAGHDAD (AP) — Taha Abbas recites the names of the dead– Hassan, Ali, Issa, Mustafa — and flips through pictures on his phone of smartly dressed young men with coiffed hair striking poses. Nearly a dozen of his friends were killed last Sunday when the Islamic State group carried out the worst single bombing Iraq has seen in 13 years of war.
One week later, death notices cover the blackened shells of the two shopping centers hit in the July 3 bombing, which killed at least 292 people.
The attack was timed to kill as many as possible — at night during Ramadan when the streets, shops and cafes were full. Government negligence also played a role. It took firefighters over half an hour to respond, and none of the buildings had fire-escapes. The interior minister resigned in the wake of the attack, and Baghdad’s security chief was fired.
Bombings have been a regular feature of life in Baghdad since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, but the scale and brutality of this attack stunned even the most war-weary Iraqis.
Jowad, a 23-year-old law student, was one of several young men working at the clothing shops, but his relaxed sense of humor set him apart.
“He was a very good-looking guy,” Abbas said. “He was very popular with women especially. He has so many fans.”
But Jowad was ready to settle down. He had gotten engaged earlier this year and was saving money to furnish a house he could move into with his fiancee.
“They loved each other so much,” Abbas said, as he stood in the husk of the mall, his arms caked with sweat and dirt. Days after Sunday’s attack, he and others are still sifting through the debris in search of remains.
Abbas, a clothing wholesaler who knew many of the mall’s clerks, was only a block away when the bomb went off. He watched helplessly as the buildings burned. When the flames died down, he rushed to his friend’s store.
He found Jowad curled up against the wall holding his nephew. They had both burned to death.
“I want people to remember that these people were Iraqis, and that Iraqis are brave and generous and good,” Abbas said.
Atiaf had recently married her longtime sweetheart. Ambitious and smart, the 22-year-old held a degree in engineering and continued to work after having a child. She had gone out shopping and lingered into the early hours Sunday, when the blast struck.
Her husband Safi, a military officer on leave, came as soon as he heard about the attack, and found his wife’s body. He hasn’t left since then. The 24-year-old, his clothes covered in dust, recently led grieving families through the burned out building. Some screamed, while others silently lit candles.
He asked that he and Atiaf be identified only by their first names out of respect for his wife’s family’s privacy.
“We were in love for four years before we married,” Safi said, joking that it took him that long to win her father’s approval. Their son is a little over a year old.
“Our story was a real love story,” he said.
When asked to elaborate, his eyes welled with tears and he shook his head.
After his father died, Obeida had to leave school and work to support his mother and siblings.
But the 24-year-old dreamed of being a model. He worked in one of the clothing stores but also modeled for the shop’s ads. Passionate about fashion, he had a sense of style that his friends struggled to define.
“He was wearing something different every time you saw him,” said Hussein Samir, who held a larger-than-life poster of Obeida during a small vigil at the blast site.
The poster shows Obeida wearing a tee-shirt, with a tattoo poking out from under his right sleeve. In other photos he’s wearing a blazer with a popped collar, leaning against a fence in a Baghdad park.
Obeida’s family found his wallet and ID among the debris. They held a funeral, but are still searching for his remains.
Samir said Obeida was devastated by his mother’s death in 2012.
“He loved her so much, he used to always put a photo of her on Facebook and say, ‘I miss you, when am I going to see you again?'”
“Now, he’ll see her again,” Samir said.
Oday, a 29-year-old carpenter, did custom work for many of the stores and offices in the neighborhood. Zahraa al-Nasrawi, an accountant who worked with him, said he was a devoted husband and father.
“The last time I saw him he showed me a picture of his daughter’s birthday. She just turned one year old. Even though he didn’t have much money, he still made a really nice party for her,” al-Nasrawi said, describing the pink decorations and the cake.
“In all of his photos on his phone you could see him holding his daughter and you could see the smile on his face, you could tell he really loved her.”
It was obvious that Oday was unhappy living in Baghdad — he feared for his wife and only daughter and was frustrated he couldn’t find a higher paying job — but al-Nasrawi said he never complained.
Oday was planning to take his family to Iraq’s cooler and more stable Kurdish region for Eid al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan. He was shopping for new clothes for his daughter when the bomb went off.
Al-Nouri was much more than an only son.
“I couldn’t do anything without him. He was like my eyes, but he was also my hands and my feet,” said his father, Abbas Moussa, who was left legally blind by a Baghdad bombing in 2007.
Al-Nouri, 22, was in his last year of law school and engaged to be married. When he wasn’t studying, he was furnishing a new home and talking with his fiancee about their future life together.
She’s inconsolable now, Moussa said. “She has gone almost crazy with grief.”
The day after Moussa learned of his son’s death, he received al-Nouri’s law school exam results.
“He was such a serious student,” Moussa said, as he started to cry. “Very serious. He was waiting every day for his exam results to come.”
He would have been pleased, Moussa said. “He passed.”