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Iraqis mark first anniversary of devastating Baghdad blast

© AFP / by Ali Choukeir | Iraqi's distribute food and sweets in Baghdad's Karrada district on July 2, 2017

BAGHDAD (AFP) - 

Iraqis still reeling from a devastating suicide bombing that killed over 320 people in central Baghdad gathered Sunday at the site of the attack to mark its first anniversary.

The bombing -- the deadliest single such attack to hit the country since 2003 -- sparked raging fires in a shopping area early on July 3, 2016 as it teemed with people ahead of the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Much of the damage has been repaired, but a massive banner bearing images of the victims still hangs at the site, and the psychological wounds inflicted by the fear and loss are far from healed.

"I still feel as though the bombing happened yesterday. I was very close when the explosion occurred. We were not able to do anything because of the shock," said Laith Fadhel al-Hussein.

"When I come here, I feel a severe (pain) in my heart," said Hussein, a 42-year-old who lost four cousins and a nephew in the attack.

Food was prepared by relatives of some of the victims and distributed to the dozens of people gathered at the site of the bombing.

Sadiq Issa, 43, who was filling styrofoam boxes with rice, lost nine relatives in the attack.

"After hearing the news, my father had a stroke," while his mother lost all movement in her arms and legs, said Issa.

Even now, "we are not sleeping," he said, holding back tears.

"I am a survivor. I saw my nephews slaughtered" in the attack.

- Broken promises -

"This place means everything to me -- here, I lost my families and friends and neighbours and all my loved ones," he said.

While surrounding areas have been repaired, the "Laith Complex" building is still empty, with the banner with pictures of the victims hanging down the front.

Residents of the area said the building is in danger of collapsing and is not safe for restoration, so it may be demolished and rebuilt.

But the process of restoration and paying compensation to the victims and their families is questioned by some.

Firas, a 36-year-old who lost his brother in the attack, said the government has not followed through on its pledges to the victims.

"They took advantage of the feelings of the people and broke all their promises," he said.

Hisham Sabah, 33, also criticised the government's response.

"Imagine, God forbid, if this happened in another country -- the state would help the families of the martyrs," he said.

"This is the worst massacre since the fall of (Saddam Hussein's) regime," but authorities put those seeking compensation through "impossible procedures that make you hate the country."

by Ali Choukeir

© 2017 AFP