Baghdad, Iraq - Nobody noticed him until he stood still. Not moving is unusual in Baghdad's bustling Karrada area, a neighbourhood that heaves with shops, restaurants, ice-cream parlours and the sort of cafes where people talk and gesticulate with passion.
But this week, on a street with a well-known cafe on one side and juice bars on the other, a man - with what was described as an almost casual air - walked into the middle of the road and stopped.
Most of the maybe 50 people sitting and talking and smoking shisha pipes outside Abu Ali cafe did not notice him, too caught up in talking about football, the upcoming elections and - in a place known to attract the city's poets, artists and writers - perhaps literature, too.
But Salam, a retired army commander meeting friends at one of the juice bars across the street, put down his glass. "I saw him," he said. "He just stood in the road, quietly and stared with his eyes forward."
Seconds later, the man blew himself up, the deep boom of the explosion echoing across the city.
Salam was thrown up and backwards from his chair, a distance of about three metres. When he gathered himself to stand, a street that just a moment before hummed with the sound of conversation was filled with the noise of screaming, crying and shouting.
|A surge of attacks has occurred as Iraq gears up for crucial parliament elections on Wednesday[AP]
People were running in all directions, the excruciating wails of car alarms filled the air, tables and chairs had been blown from the pavement to the street, and blood was spattered everywhere.
Ten people lay dead and 18 were wounded, on the ground or wandering in a daze.
Attacks such as these are mostly carried out by the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group. Shia neighbourhoods are targeted by most of the car bombs, though Sunni and mixed areas sometimes suffer too.
Iraq has witnessed a spike in deadly attacks in the lead up to parliamentary elections next Wednesday with more than 480 civilians killed in March alone - excluding casualties from ongoing fighting in troubled Anbar province.
Some 8,740 people have been killed in violence over the past year, according to United Nations figures. Bloodshed has soared to levels not seen since Iraq balanced on the brink of civil war in 2006-07.
"The political, social and religious leaders of Iraq have an urgent responsibility to come together in the face of the terrorist threat that the country is facing," Nickolay Mladenov, special representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Iraq, said in a statement last month.
'Why do they attack?'
The morning after the Karrada attack, witnesses at the Abu Ali cafe described the scene with a mix of reticence and a desire to speak out against the bombers, a few with tears in their eyes as they spoke.
"I am just very saddened by this. Very sad," Salam said quietly, still visibly shocked and touching a journalist on the arm as he spoke.
"This was a cultured place - painters and poets and even famous sportspeople came here to talk and to watch football. Why do they attack them like this?"
He gestured to the kerbside. "His head was there. The bomber's. It was sitting there in the street."
These people want to kill everything - men, women, children, babies. Sometimes I think they even want to kill the birds, the trees, every living thing under Iraq's sky.
The intention of ISIL and similar groups battling the Shia-led government is, many in Iraq say, to provoke a sectarian civil war that would undermine the state.
So far, that provocation has been resisted.
Iraqis will vote on Wednesday in the first parliamentary elections since US troops pulled out in late 2011, and more attacks are expected ahead of polling day. But those at the scene of the Karrada blast insisted they were unbowed.
'Time they emerged'
"We'll be back here every night," said Ahmed, who, underlining the regularity of the attacks, had a bandaged arm from the bombing of another cafe, his still-blistered fingers poking out of the gauze.
"These people want to kill everything - men, women, children, babies. Sometimes I think they even want to kill the birds, the trees, every living thing under Iraq's sky. They want to destroy us."
A small crowd gathered to listen to Ahmed and several men echoed his sentiments.
"What they really want to destroy is life. But the Iraqi people? We love life," he said.
Iraqi journalists and police milled around the scene as he spoke, and owners and employees of the damaged businesses tried to clean up, one with a bandaged head. A frustrated, elderly man gestured at photographers in his way, keen to get on with sweeping up the shards of shattered glass.
"He has to get ready to open again," an onlooker explained.
For many in Karrada that morning, the most galling thing was the cowardice.
"They should come out from the shadows and fight us face-to-face," Salam said. "It's time they emerged from the darkness."
Follow Barry Malone on Twitter: @malonebarry
Source: Al Jazeera