BAGHDAD, May 17, (Agencies): At least 72 people were killed and more than 140 wounded by three bombings in Baghdad on Tuesday, police and medical sources said, extending the deadliest spate of attacks in the Iraqi capital so far this year.
Islamic State claimed one suicide bombing which killed 38 people and wounded over 70 in a marketplace in the northern, mainly Shi’ite Muslim district of al-Shaab.
A car bomb in nearby Shi’ite Sadr City killed at least 28 dead and 57 wounded, and another car blew up in the mixed Shi’ite-Sunni neighbourhood of al-Rasheed, south of the capital, killing six and wounding 21, the sources said.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered the arrest of the security official in charge of al-Shaab’s security after the attack, Abadi’s office said in a statement, without giving a reason for the detention.
Attacks claimed by IS in and around the city last week killed more than 100 people, the highest death toll in so few days so far this year, sparking anger and street protests over the government’s failure to ensure security.
Security had improved in Baghdad in recent years as sectarian tensions waned and the city’s perimeter was fortified. Islamic State, the ultra-hardline Sunni militants who control parts of north and west Iraq, have not tried to take the capital but carry out increasingly regular suicide bombings there, hitting Shi’ite areas and government targets.
With the latest death tolls, fears are growing that Baghdad could relapse into the bloodletting of a decade ago when sectarian-motivated suicide bombings killed scores of people every week.
This has cranked up pressure on Abadi who is struggling to solve a political crisis or risk losing control of parts of Baghdad to Islamic State militants. Away from the capital, Iraq’s military is waging a counter offensive against the group.
Abadi has said the crisis, sparked by his attempt to reshuffle the cabinet in an anti-corruption bid, is hampering the fight against Islamic State and creating space for more insurgent attacks on the civilian population.
A spokesman for the Baghdad Operations Command told state television the attacker in al-Shaab had detonated an explosives-filled vest along with a planted bomb. Initial investigations revealed that the bomber was a woman, he said.
Islamic State said in a statement distributed online by supporters that one of its fighters had targeted Shi’ite militiamen with hand grenade and a suicide vest. There were no immediate claims of responsibility for the other two bombings.
Meanwhile, the Islamic State group has continued losing control over territory across Iraq and Syria, a Pentagon spokesman said Monday, including almost half of what it had once held in Iraq.
The Defense Department had previously estimated that IS fighters had lost control of about 40 percent of the territory they claimed in Iraq and about 10 percent of the land they held in Syria.
Those tallies had gone up in recent weeks, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said.
“The number right now in Iraq is about 45 percent of the territory they once held has been recovered,” Cook said.
“The number in Syria is anywhere between 16 to 20 percent.”
IS jihadists stormed across large parts of Iraq and Syria in early 2014, meeting little resistance from Iraqi security forces and exploiting the chaos in civil-war-torn Syria.
Since August 2014, the United States has led an international coalition fighting back against the IS group, using a combination of air strikes and training and equipping local partners.
IS fighters have lost control of Ramadi and Heet in Iraq, but still control other important cities including Mosul and Fallujah.
In Syria, the group maintains control of Raqa, the capital of their so-called caliphate.
The United States and its allies conducted 12 strikes against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria on Monday, the coalition leading the operations said.
In a statement released on Tuesday, the Combined Joint Task Force said two strikes in Syria hit a tactical unit and destroyed a vehicle near Al Shadaddi and destroyed an artillery piece near Mar’a.
Ten strikes in Iraq, half of them near Qayyarah, struck three headquarters, two tactical units and destroyed fighting positions, a fuel tanker and heavy machine guns among other targets, the statement said.
Iraqi oil workers resumed work at a natural gas plant north of Baghdad on Tuesday, two days after a coordinated dawn assault by Islamic State militants left at least 14 people dead there, a senior Oil Ministry official said.
Sunday’s spectacular attack in the town of Taji, about 20 kms (12 miles) north of Baghdad, saw a suicide car bombing at the facility’s main gate, followed by several IS fighters breaking into the plant where they clashed with security forces for hours before the attackers were repelled.
The dead included six civilians and eight security forces while 27 Iraqi troops were wounded. Closed-circuit television images showed an explosion that sent thick black smoke rising above the plant. As flames engulfed the facility and nearby palm trees, pedestrians were seen running for cover. The top of one of the gas-processing units was blown off.
It took hours before Iraqi troops repelled the attackers.
On Tuesday, work at the plant’s three production lines returned “to normal levels,” said Deputy Oil Minister Hamid Younis.
The plant was back to full capacity of producing 30,000 cooking gas cylinders a day, he said, adding that Sunday’s attack had only damaged two gas storages and a few pipelines.
Iraqi state TV showed workers in navy blue overalls filling metal and plastic cylinders on conveyor belts and forklift trucks loading cylinders into trucks.
The assault on Taji came as Islamic State militants are being pushed back along several front lines in Iraq, prompting the Sunni extremists to increasingly turn to insurgency-style attacks to detract from their losses.
IS-claimed attacks have killed more than 140 people since last week in Iraq and the Islamic State still controls significant areas in northern and western Iraq, including the country’s second-largest city of Mosul. The group declared an Islamic caliphate on the territory it holds in Iraq and Syria and at the height of its power was estimated to hold nearly a third of Iraq. Iraq’s government says the group’s hold has since shrunk to 14 percent of Iraq’s territory.
A power struggle within Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslim majority has intensified as attempts to form a new government flounder, threatening to turn violent and ruin US-led efforts to defeat Islamic State.
For the first time since the US withdrawal at the end of 2011, Shi’ite factions came close to taking arms against each another last month, when followers of powerful cleric Moqtada al-Sadr stormed the parliament in Baghdad’s Green Zone.
Rival Shi’ite militiamen took up positions nearby, raising the spectre of intra-Shi’ite fighting similar to events in the southern city of Basra in 2008, in which hundreds of people were killed.
Trucks carrying those militiamen, armed with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns, patrolled the capital in clear view of the security forces, video published on the website of Iranian-backed group Saraya al-Khorasani showed.
The crisis presents the biggest political challenge yet to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a moderate Shi’ite Islamist who took office in 2014 promising to defeat Islamic State, mend rifts with the minority Sunnis and Kurds, and root out corruption eating away at state income which has already been eroded by a slump in oil prices.
Sadr, the heir of a revered clerical dynasty, says he backs Abadi’s planned political reforms and has accused other Shi’ite leaders of seeking to preserve a system of political patronage that makes the public administration rife for corruption.
His followers stormed the heavily fortified Green Zone on April 30 after rival political groups blocked parliamentary approval of a new cabinet made up of independent technocrats proposed by Abadi to fight graft.
A commander in Saraya al-Khorasani, which deployed near the Green Zone in response, made it clear that they would fight rather than allow Sadr’s followers to occupy the district which houses parliament, government offices and embassies.
“We are here to kill this sedition in its cradle,” the commander, dressed in green camouflage and a black turban told his fighters, the online video shows.
The prospect of violence receded a few days later as the Sadrists left the Green Zone and the rival militiamen were replaced by army and police.
But the episode offered a glimpse into a struggle for dominance within the Shi’ite community which is supposed to be united in the push to defeat Islamic State, the ultra-hardline Sunni group that seized around a third of Iraq’s territory in 2014.
“We were only inches away from a violent, bloody scenario,” said a senior Shi’ite lawmaker, echoing comments from security and government officials who all declined to be named speaking about internal divisions.
At a meeting on May 1 by members of the National Alliance, a loose political umbrella group formed in 2010 by the main Shi’ite groups including Sadr’s, the other Shi’ite leaders “were convinced he had crossed a line”, the lawmaker said.
Sadr did not attend the meeting but those present “sent him a warning” that his supporters could be removed by force if necessary, said the lawmaker who took part in the meeting.
Two other politicians who attended confirmed the message was sent to Sadr, a 42-year-old whom critics often deride as an upstart, accusing him of trying to dictate terms to the rest of the National Alliance.
“Unfortunately there are politicians ready to burn Iraq for their own interests and ambitions under the pretext of reforms,” said Ammar al-Hakim, a prominent Shi’ite cleric who has ties to Iran and heads the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, one of the main components of the National Alliance.
Sadr has mobilised tens of thousands of followers over the past few months to pressure Prime Minister Abadi to follow through on his reform pledges, which are also backed by Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatalloh Ali al-Sistani.
The last episode of Shi’ite infighting spilling over into deadly violence was in 2008 when Abadi’s predecessor, Nuri al-Maliki, ordered the army to battle Sadr’s followers in Basra to end their control over parts of the southern region where most of the OPEC nation’s oil is produced.
Unlike the current situation, Sadr was confronted then by government troops, not a militia.
But it was still considered intra-Shi’ite because the army is mostly made up of Shi’ites and Maliki, a politician close to neighbouring Iran, had a sectarian agenda that also alienated Sunnis and Kurds during his eight-year rule.
Maliki handed over power to Abadi in 2014 after the army failed to stop Islamic State’s advance, and is now considered an adversary of the prime minister.
Iraq’s most powerful militias receive funds, weapons and training from Iran, putting them at odds with Sadr who once benefited from Iranian support but has positioned himself as a more nationalist leader.
Saraya al-Khorasani and Badr Organisation, one of the top Iranian-backed groups, along with Sadr’s Peace Brigades and dozens of smaller groups, fight alongside the US-backed Iraqi army against Islamic State, under an umbrella group known locally as Hashid Shaabi, or Popular Mobilisation Forces.
Their unity of purpose, though, appears to have begun to fray and the Iranian-backed militias’ show of force demonstrates the state’s struggle to confront their growing power.
After a string of deadly bombings in Baghdad last week claimed by Islamic State, politicians from Badr and Sadr’s bloc accused each other of complicity.
Sadr, meanwhile, appears intent on claiming the mantle of the country’s leading reformer — a move that may be aimed at least in part at positioning himself for nationwide elections over the next two years.