The ISIL (ISIS) group has claimed responsibility for a twin suicide bombing – the deadliest in nearly three years – that ripped through a crowded market in central Baghdad on Thursday, killing 32 people and wounding 110 others.
The first attacker drew a crowd at the bustling market in the capital’s Tayaran Square by claiming to feel sick, then detonated his explosives belt, the Interior Ministry said.
As more people then flocked to the scene to help the victims, a second suicide bomber set off his explosives.
The attack is the first twin 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 at stalls, had been teeming with people after the lifting of nearly a year of COVID-19 restrictions across the Middle Eastern country.
An AFP news agency photographer at the scene said security forces had cordoned off the area, where blood-soaked clothes were strewn across the muddy streets and paramedics were rushing to take away the casualties.
The Health Ministry said those who lost their lives had died on the scene of the attack, and that most of the wounded had been treated and released from hospital.
After midnight, ISIL posted a claim of responsibility for the attack on its online propaganda channels.
Iraq needs support, says FM
Iraq’s Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein acknowledged in an interview with Al Jazeera that ISIL is still a threat, and that the country needed support from the region and international countries.
“Having spoken with military and security officials, I came to know that we are still lacking training, experts, weapons. We also need to share intelligence,” Hussein said.
“Why I am saying this? Simply because ISIL operatives, or certain ISIL rings, are still active and on the move in Iraq, namely in Al Anbar, and at the outskirts of Kirkuk and Mosul. ISIL and some terrorists groups still have a firm presence in Iraq.”
He said security in Iraq required a collective regional security framework.
“And in order to achieve this, regional relations must be normal, and any differences should be resolved within the scope of this regional framework through amicable dialogue,” he said.
“Therefore, Iraq needs to maintain healthy relations with the neighbouring Gulf countries; and at the same time we need to see healthy relations between the Gulf countries and Iran.”
Al Jazeera’s Simona Foltyn said despite the Iraqi government declaring it has territorially defeated ISIL, the group never really went away.
“[ISIL] had a relatively seamless transition into an insurgency and even though it was pushed out from the urban areas into the rural areas, it continued to operate and stage attacks on security forces and checkpoints in remote areas,” she said, speaking from Baghdad.
“But we also have to say it is really difficult to quantify how strong an organisation really is,” Foltyn added.
“We do know that the US-led coalition to fight ISIL underreports cases of attacks by ISIL especially in remote rural areas because they rely on Iraqi security forces to report the cases.”
‘Resolve’ against ISIL
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Khadhimi hailed the citizens’ “resolve” against ISIL’s heinous crime.
“Our people have proven their resolve in the face of Daesh’s terrorism,” he said on Twiiter, referring to ISIL by their acronym in Arabic.
“The will to live among our people as they face terrorism in the scene of the heinous crime at Bab al-Sharqi was a message of defiance and unparalleled courage.”
Our people have proven their resolve in the face of Daesh’s terrorism. The will to live among our people as they face terrorism in the scene of the heinous crime at Bab al-Sharqi was a message of defiance and unparalleled courage.
— Mustafa Al-Kadhimi مصطفى الكاظمي (@MAKadhimi) January 21, 2021
Al-Kadhimi reshuffled several top security officials following the attack.
Such violence was commonplace in Baghdad during the sectarian bloodletting that followed the US-led invasion of 2003 and later on as ISIL swept across much of Iraq and also took aim at the capital.
But with the group’s territorial defeat in late 2017, suicide bombings in the city became rare. Baghdad’s concrete blast walls were dismantled and checkpoints across the city removed.
‘Senseless and barbaric’
President Barham Saleh led political figures in condemning Thursday’s attack, saying the government would “stand firmly against these rogue attempts to destabilise our country”.
Pope Francis, who hopes to visit Iraq in March, deplored the “senseless act of brutality”.
The US, the United Nations and the European Union strongly condemned the attack.
US acting Secretary of State Daniel Smith said the bombings “were vicious acts of mass murder and a sobering reminder of the terrorism that continues to threaten the lives of innocent Iraqis”.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres issued an appeal “to the people of Iraq to reject any attempts to spread 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’s Iraq mission offered condolences to the victims and said: “Such a despicable act will not weaken Iraq’s march towards stability and prosperity.”
Neighbouring Iran also denounced the attack, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh saying his government was ready to assist Iraq “in the struggle against terrorism and extremism”.
The attack comes as Iraqis prepare for a parliamentary election. Prime Minister al-Kadhimi had originally 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 over rescheduling them to October, to give electoral authorities more time to register voters and new parties.
ISIL seized a third of Iraq in 2014 and was dangerously close to the capital, but a ferocious three-year fight by Iraqi troops pushed them back.
Still, the group’s sleeper cells have continued to operate in desert and mountain areas, typically attacking security forces or state infrastructure with low casualty attacks.
The US-led coalition that had been supporting Iraq’s campaign against ISIL has significantly pulled out its troop levels over the past year, citing the increased capabilities of Iraqi forces.
The US, which provides the bulk of the force, has 2,500 troops left in Iraq – down from 5,200 a year ago.
They are mainly in charge of training, providing drone surveillance and carrying out air raids while Iraqi security forces handle security in urban areas.