The ISIS group has claimed responsibility for a double suicide bombing – the deadliest in almost three years – which devastated a crowded market in central Baghdad on Thursday, killing 32 people and injuring 110 others.
The first attacker drew a crowd to the capital’s bustling Tayaran Square market pretending to feel ill, then detonated his explosive belt, the Interior Ministry said.
As more and more people flocked to the scene to help the victims, a second suicide bomber set off his explosives.
The attack is the first double bombing in Baghdad since January 2018, when 35 people were killed and 90 injured in the same square that was hit on Thursday.
The open-air market, where second-hand clothes are sold in stalls, was teeming with people after nearly a year of lifting of COVID-19 restrictions across the Middle Eastern country.
An AFP news agency photographer at the scene said security forces cordoned off the area, where blood-soaked clothes were strewn through the muddy streets and paramedics rushed to take the injured away.
The health ministry said those who lost their lives died at the scene of the attack and most of the injured were treated and released from hospital.
After midnight, ISIL issued a statement of responsibility for the attack on its online propaganda channels.
ISIL remains operational
Al Jazeera’s Simona Foltyn said that although the Iraqi government said it had defeated ISIL territorially, the group never really moved away.
“[ISIL] experienced a relatively seamless transition to an insurgency and even though it was forced from urban to rural areas, it continued to operate and launch attacks against security forces and checkpoints in remote areas ”, she said, speaking of Baghdad.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein acknowledged that ISIL was still a threat and that the country needed support from the region and international countries, she continued.
“But we also have to say that it’s really hard to quantify the real strength of an organization,” added Foltyn. “We know that the US-led coalition to fight ISIL underestimates cases of ISIL attacks, especially in remote rural areas, as it relies on Iraqi security forces to report cases.”
‘Resolve’ against ISIL
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Khadhimi praised the citizens’ “resolve” against the heinous crime of ISIL.
“Our people have proven their resolve in the face of Daesh terrorism,” he told Twiiter, referring to ISIL by its acronym in Arabic.
“The will to live among our people in the face of terrorism at the scene of Bab al-Sharqi’s heinous crime was a message of unprecedented challenge and courage.”
Our people have proven their determination in the face of Daesh terrorism. The will to live among our people in the face of terrorism at the scene of Bab al-Sharqi’s heinous crime was a message of unprecedented challenge and courage.
– Mustafa Al-Kadhimi (@MAKadhimi) January 21, 2021
Al-Kadhimi reshuffled several senior security officials following the attack.
Such violence was common in Baghdad during the sectarian bloodshed that followed the 2003 US invasion and later as ISIS swept through much of Iraq and also targeted the capital.
But with the group’s territorial defeat at the end of 2017, suicide attacks in the city have become rare. Baghdad’s concrete explosion walls have been dismantled and checkpoints across the city have been removed.
‘Foolish and barbaric’
President Barham Saleh has led political figures to condemn Thursday’s attack, saying the government “will stand firm against these rogue attempts to destabilize our country.”
Pope Francis, who hopes to visit Iraq in March, lamented “the senseless act of brutality.”
The United States, the United Nations and the European Union strongly condemned the attack.
Acting US Secretary of State Daniel Smith said the bombings “were vicious acts of mass murder and a worrying reminder of the terrorism that continues to threaten the lives of innocent Iraqis.”
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called “on the Iraqi people to reject any attempt to sow fear and violence aimed at undermining peace, stability and unity”.
The EU called the attack “senseless and barbaric” and reiterated its “full support to the Iraqi authorities in the fight against extremism and terrorism”.
The UN mission in Iraq offered its condolences to the victims and said: “Such a despicable act will not weaken Iraq’s march towards stability and prosperity.”
Neighboring Iran also denounced the attack, Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh saying his government was ready to help Iraq “in the fight against terrorism and extremism.”
The attack comes as the Iraqis prepare for parliamentary elections. Prime Minister al-Kadhimi initially set this year’s general election for June, nearly a year ahead of schedule, in response to widespread protests in 2019.
But authorities are in talks to postpone them until October, to give election officials more time to register voters and new parties.
ISIS captured a third of Iraq in 2014 and was dangerously close to the capital, but a fierce three-year fight by Iraqi troops pushed them back.
Yet the group’s sleeper cells continued to operate in desert and mountainous areas, typically attacking security forces or state infrastructure with low casualty attacks.
The US-led coalition that had supported the Iraqi campaign against ISIL has significantly downsized 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 in Iraq, up from 5,200 a year ago.
They are primarily responsible for training, drone surveillance and air raids, while Iraqi security forces provide security in urban areas.