Iraq reels as 36 killed in ISIS suicide blast on eve of Eid festival

The blast killed mostly women and children on the eve of Eid al-Adha. PHOTO: AFP

BAGHDAD (AFP) - Iraq was in mourning on Tuesday (July 20) for at least 36 people killed when a bomb ripped through a crowded Baghdad market in what the Islamic State group's jihadists claimed as a suicide attack.

The bloody carnage Monday evening, one of the deadliest attacks in years in the war-scarred country, killed mostly women and children on the eve of Eid al-Adha, the Muslim festival of sacrifice.

It sparked revulsion and renewed fears about the reach of ISIS, which lost its last territory in Iraq after a gruelling campaign that ended in late 2017, but retains sleeper cells in remote desert and mountain areas.

The Sunni Muslim extremists claimed on the Telegram messenger service that an ISIS suicide bomber had detonated an explosives belt in the bustling Woheilat market of Baghdad's Shiite district of Sadr City.

In the panic and chaos of the attack, screams of terror and anguish filled the air. When the smoke cleared, human remains lay strewn amid scattered sandals, market produce and the charred debris of stalls.

Iraqi President Barham Salih condemned the "heinous crime of unprecedented cruelty on the eve of Eid," writing on Twitter that the perpetrators "do not allow people to rejoice, even for a moment".

The United Nations Mission in Iraq said the attack showed that "the scourge of terrorism knows no bounds", while the German embassy expressed its "sadness after this senseless and brutal attack".

No official death toll has yet been released by Iraqi authorities, but medical sources told AFP that at least 36 people were killed and about 60 wounded.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi said the "cowardly attack illustrates the failure of terrorists to regain a foothold after being defeated by our heroic security forces" and vowed that "terrorism will not go unpunished".

The attack came days before Kadhemi was to meet US President Joe Biden in Washington, and ahead of a scheduled parliamentary election in October.

"This is a clear message that ISIS is still present and is able to strike targets in Baghdad," said Osama al-Saidi, head of the Iraqi Political Science Association.

"Whenever elections approach, terror attacks happen with the aim of sending a political message that those governing are weak." Deadly attacks were common in Baghdad during the sectarian bloodletting that followed the US-led invasion of 2003, and later on as ISIS swept across much of Iraq.

Iraq declared ISIS defeated in late 2017 after a fierce three-year campaign and attacks became relatively rare in the capital - until January this year when a twin suicide bombing claimed by IS killed 32 people in a Baghdad market.

The US-led coalition that supported Iraq's campaign against ISIS has significantly drawn down its troop levels over the past year, citing the increased capabilities of Iraqi forces.

The United States, which provides the bulk of the force, has 2,500 troops left in Iraq - down from 5,200 a year ago. They carry out air strikes, drone surveillance and training of Iraqi forces.

US forces have come under repeated attack from Shiite paramilitary groups, integrated into the Iraq security apparatus, that support neighbouring Iran, the arch enemy of the United States.

The latest attack sparked condolences from abroad, and recriminations among Iraqi political leaders. Russian President Vladimir Putin said "the murder of dozens of civilians ... is shocking in its cruelty and cynicism" and urged that the perpetrators "receive the punishment they deserve". Iran's foreign ministry also condemned the "barbaric act".

At home, parliament speaker Mohamed Halbousi called for "leadership changes among senior security officials who have proven their dereliction of duty". Lawmaker Adnan Al-Zurfi accused commanders of the Falcon Cell counter-terrorism unit of having turned from "intelligence gathering to politics".

Iraqi analyst Jassem al-Moussaoui said the attack highlights "the weakness of the security forces which have not been formed on a professional basis but according to their political loyalties".

Many ordinary Iraqis meanwhile shared their grief, exhaustion and sense of helplessness in a country that has endured decades of war and insurgency, as well as an ongoing deep economic and political crisis.

In a widely shared social media post, comedian Ahmed al-Basheer recalled that only days ago at least 60 people died when a fire tore through a Covid hospital unit in the southern city of Nasiriyah.

"Every day there's a new calamity," he wrote. "We're tired of everything."

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