Baghdad bombing kills at least 200; ISIS claims responsibility

By Mohammed Tawfeeq, Joe Sterling and Susanna Capelouto, CNN

July 4, 2016

The death toll from Saturday's suicide bombing in Baghdad has risen to 200, the deputy head of the security committee of the Baghdad Provincial Council, Mohamed al-Rubaye‎, said in a televised phone interview Monday.

(CNN) -- A suicide truck bomb ripped through a busy shopping district in Baghdad over the weekend, killing more than 100 in what was the deadliest single attack in the war-weary country in years.

The brazen Saturday night attack in the heart of the packed Karrada neighborhood killed at least 125 people, including 25 children and 20 women.

Families had been gathering hours after they broke the fast for the holy Muslim month of Ramadan and prepared for Eid al-Fitr -- the day that marks the end of the holiday this week.

As people congregated, shopped and watched soccer matches, the bomb-laden truck plowed into a building housing a coffee shop, stores and a gym. Firefighters rescued wounded and trapped people in adjacent buildings.

ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack. It was the latest in a string of assaults during Ramadan, a period of fasting and prayer for Muslims and also a time when jihadists launch operations against those they regard as their enemies.

At least 147 people were wounded.

ISIS promised an uptick in terror attacks during Ramadan. The Baghdad assault came just days after massacres at a cafe in Dhaka, Bangladesh, the Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul, Turkey, and security targets in Yemen. There have also been recent suicide attacks in Jordan at a border crossing near Syria, and suicide attacks in a Christian area of northern Lebanon.

Last month, a gunman shot up a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, killing 49 people before he was killed, and an attacker killed a police commander and his partner in France.

ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attacks in Bangladesh and Yemen and there are news reports that ISIS claimed responsibility for the Jordanian attack. Experts believe the group might have conducted the attacks in Turkey and Lebanon.

Omar Mateen, the killer in Orlando, and the attacker in France both pledged allegiance to ISIS.

A second bomb exploded Sunday at an outdoor market in the Shaab neighborhood of southeastern Baghdad, killing one person and wounding five others, police said.

Both Baghdad strikes are a sign of the Sunni-Shiite tension in the Muslim world. Sunni-dominated ISIS claimed it was targeting Shiite neighborhoods. Karrada and Shaab are predominately Shiite.

"These acts of mass murder are yet another example of Daesh's contempt for human life," said State Department spokesman John Kirby, using another term for ISIS. "From Baghdad to Istanbul, Brussels, Dhaka, and Paris, Daesh terrorists murder the innocent to attract attention and recruits. They will not succeed."

Kirby was also making reference to the attacks last November in Paris that killed 130 people and the attacks in Brussels that left more than 30 dead.

Witness: 'I lost several friends'

In Karrada, college student Sadeq al Zawini, 25, was watching as rescue workers pulled bodies from the rubble.

"We've had it with the Iraqi government and politicians. They can't continue blaming Daesh and other terrorist groups. We need a solution," he said. "I lost several friends myself, some are still missing," he said, sobbing.

The anger of residents manifested itself when Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and other officials attempted to survey the bomb damage.

Amateur videos posted on social media showed residents throwing objects at a convoy carrying al-Abadi in Karrada. The videos showed protesters yelling "thief!" and "get out!"

In a statement, al-Abadi said he understands the reaction in "that moment of grief" by the residents who threw objects at his convoy.

He said he came to Karrada to console families and "share their sorrow in this painful tragedy that happened." He said ISIS tried to hijack the joy that Iraqis felt over recent victories against ISIS in Falluja.

Recent surge

As for Baghdad, it has witnessed a surge in the number of car bomb attacks in recent weeks, with ISIS claiming responsibility for many of them.

One of the worst incidents occurred in Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood May 11, when a car packed with explosives detonated, killing at least 64 people and wounding 87, according to security officials.

A week later, three more explosions were set off. Sadr City was hit again -- another 24 people were killed and 71 were wounded.

The other two explosions were in the Shaab neighborhood adn killed at least 19 people and wounded another 44.

Hundreds of new U.S. troops to Iraq a 'possibility'

International reaction

Al-Abadi called the Karrada strike "dastardly" and "cowardly" and announced a three-day mourning period.

"This is a cowardly and heinous act of unparalleled proportions, to target peaceful civilians in the closing days of the holy month of Ramadan, including shoppers preparing" for the Eid holiday, said Jan Kubis, the United Nations special representative for Iraq.

Former Iraqi diplomat: Iraq is in political chaos

The White House issued a statement saying, "These attacks only strengthen our resolve to support Iraqi security forces as they continue to take back territory from ISIL, just as we continue to intensify our efforts to root out ISIL's terrorist network and leaders." ISIL is also another name for ISIS.

UNICEF reacted to the death of 25 children in the attack.

"The killing and maiming of children is a grave violation under international humanitarian law," the group said in a statement. "As violence across Iraq intensifies, children continue to pay the heaviest price."

Bombing comes after Iraqi gains against ISIS

This flurry of ISIS strikes during Ramadan comes as the United States says the group is losing ground in the warfare across Syria and Iraq.

Iraqi forces announced last week they have seized the city of Falluja, 40 miles west of Baghdad, from ISIS. At the time, authorities assured Baghdad residents that the bombings would stop.

Many of the car bombers and suicide bombers who have plagued the capital for years are from Falluja, about an hour away.

"Obviously this will reignite the anger of ordinary people who say we can't even go out at night and enjoy life in our city," said CNN Senior International Correspondent Ben Wedeman.

Iraqi forces, encouraged by their triumph, are turning their attention to Mosul, where they and Kurdish forces plan to wrest control of Iraq's second-largest city in the north. Mosul has been under ISIS control since 2014.

Cedric Leighton, a CNN military analyst and retired Air Force colonel, thinks the attacks will worsen and said that is ISIS' game plan, to generate instability.

"They are trying to create enough chaos in Iraq itself so that the Iraqi forces will find it very difficult to actually take advantage of the forward momentum they have achieved because of their victory in Falluja and that is a very serious issue that the al-Abadi administration is going to have to address."

It's hard to say "when and where they are going to strike," he said of ISIS.

"This is a very, very difficult time. It is a very risky time, just because the political fissures are so great within Iraq that they are so easily exploitable by ISIS and its fellow travelers."

Such attacks, like the one in Baghdad will serve to drive a wedge between the government and the people, in particular the Shiites.

"The wedge was already there and its fairly easy for them to exploit this," he said.

Bomb detectors pulled from security checkpoints

After the Karrada attack, al-Abadi issued a statement ordering all bomb detector devices pulled from security checkpoints. He ordered the Interior Ministry to reopen a probe into corrupt deals to purchase such devices.

This occurred amid fears that some detectors don't work.

Six years ago, the Iraqi government accused a manufacturer of supplying the country with some fake bomb detectors and said Tuesday it plans to sue the company.

Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh at the time said that three Iraqi investigations into the devices determined most of the bomb detectors are working, although some are fake and ineffective. He did not name the detectors in his statement or explain the investigations.

The alleged fakes have been removed from Iraqi streets and have been replaced by functioning ones, al-Dabbagh had said.

Islamic Law Controls the Streets of Basra

Enforcers patrol the city and Shiite militiamen have taken over the police. Residents accused of infractions are beaten or killed.

By Louise Roug
Times Staff Writer

June 27, 2005

BASRA, Iraq Physicians have been beaten for treating female patients. Liquor salesmen have been killed. Even barbers have faced threats for giving haircuts judged too short or too fashionable.

Religion rules the streets of this once cosmopolitan city, where women no longer dare go out uncovered.

"We can't sing in public anymore," said Hussin Nimma, a popular singer from the south. "It's ironic. We thought that with the change of the regime, people would be more open to singing, art and poetry."

Unmarked cars cruise the streets, carrying armed, plain-clothed enforcers of Islamic law. Who they are or answer to is unclear, but residents believe they are part of a battle for Basra's soul.

In the spring, Shiite and Sunni Muslim officials were killed in a series of assassinations here, and residents feared their city would fall prey to the kind of sectarian violence ailing the rest of the country.

Instead, conservative Shiite Islamic parties have solidified their grip, fully institutionalizing their power in a city where the Shiite majority had long been persecuted by the Sunni-dominated rule of Saddam Hussein.

Although eager to distance themselves from the militias, Shiite religious parties now control both the streets and the council chambers. And though Basra has not suffered the same level of bombings and assassinations as major cities to the north, the trade-off for law and order appears to be a crackdown on social practices and mores that were permissible under the secular, if repressive, regime of Hussein.

In a sign of Basra's strategic and symbolic importance, Abdelaziz Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a leading Shiite party, visited the city this month. Thousands of residents watched as the former commander of SCIRI's paramilitary force released 18 white doves representing peace.

But peace in Basra, Iraq's second most populous city, has come at a cost.

A few weeks ago, the Basra police chief acknowledged that he'd lost control of his 13,000-strong force to Shiite militiamen who joined up. He was removed from his job. His replacement is rumored to be Lt. Col. Salam Badran, who is affiliated with SCIRI.

Some residents believe many members of the SCIRI-affiliated paramilitary force, the Badr Brigade, have signed on to the Basra police force, and that brigade members give first loyalty to the party.

"The militias are more powerful than the police," said Saba Shedar, a goldsmith. The man who brings home a bottle of liquor or the woman without a veil both risk beatings, he said. Merchants who kept their shops open well into the night now close at sunset out of fear.

"This is the democracy of 2005," Shedar said. "We expected improvement, but now there's no freedom in the streets for the women. People are afraid."

The militiamen carry out political assassinations and dole out punishment for alleged religious infractions, residents say.

Local SCIRI officials deny any participation in the clandestine killings and emphasize their party's involvement in the political process. The Badr militia's most important job is setting an example of virtuous conduct, said Furat Sharza, a SCIRI representative.

"Badr people can educate others," Sharza said. "The role of Badr in Basra whether in security or other area is big, vital."

National Shiite leaders have said militias would not be disbanded, affronting Sunnis who believe they are targets of vengeance by Shiites who were brutally repressed under Hussein's Sunni-run regime.

In restaurants, people now talk of the trade-off of militia influence.

"Security is good in part because the militia is effective," said Saad Hussein, a visitor from Baghdad. "You must give them a power to fight the terrorists, but it has to be a limited power. If it's unlimited, they'll use it against the society. It's a difficult balance."

A local businessman who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisal compared the current strict rule to life under Hussein.

"The same thing is happening now," he said. "During Saddam, we had the secret police. Now it's coming again. If you say something bad, they shoot you in the night."

Although you need a strong police force, he said, "they have to be for the government, not for the political parties."

On the Basra provincial council, 35 of the 41 members are affiliated with Islamic Shiite groups. The governor is a member of a local political party connected to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr. Stickers and posters of the cleric dominate the walls inside the provincial government building.

Just a few months ago, militiamen loyal to Sadr beat students at a picnic in Andalus Park, allegedly because men and women were singing and dancing together. Police stood and watched.

Sadr's Mahdi militia clashed with troops of the U.S.-led coalition last year in Basra, Baghdad and in the holy city of Najaf. But Sadr has since agreed to disarm the militia, reportedly to reinvent himself as a mainstream politician.

"We don't have any kind of relationship with [the militias] or with the hands that are moving them," said Abu Zehra Mayahi, a Sadr representative. "We have good relations with other groups. Political representation on the council includes Christians, Sunnis, Shiites."

Sabah Sudani, the deputy director of the Basra Chamber of Commerce, has no quarrels with the militias. After all, he said, there's little foreign investment without security.

While the ouster of Hussein brought optimism to Basra, residents complain that even with good security there has been little foreign investment and few public projects to improve the city's infrastructure and create jobs.

That may soon change. Iraqi Airways began flying this month between Baghdad and Basra, connecting businessmen in the capital with the city that borders Iran, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. About to arrive are United Nations representatives, and with them probably the World Bank and the prospect of international investment.

Despite the increasing prohibitions on such activities as drinking and singing, tourists will also come to the city, Sudani predicted.

The view from the edge of the Shatt al Arab waterway had a pleasing postcard quality.

Swallows skipped along the water's surface. Fishermen mended their nets. A knock-off plaster Mickey Mouse his nose too pointy stood guard at a now-closed carnival, the Ferris wheel frozen. Nearby, a family dried laundry amid the rubble of a former casino.

His own bait overlooked, Abdul Kareem watched his son pull fish from the river.

The river, green like jade, is unchanged but the city is different, Kareem said.

Lovers used to be drawn here at night, he remembered. "Girlfriends, wives nobody asked," he said. "Now, no one dares."

He sighed at the memory of nightclubs now closed, and girls without veils.

"Freedom," he said.

Times staff writer Raheem Salman contributed to this report.