TIKRIT, Iraq, May 13, (Agencies): Shooting and bomb attacks claimed by Islamic State killed at least 16 people in northern Iraq on Friday, days after Islamic State’s deadliest blasts so far this year in the capital stirred public criticism of government security measures.
Three gunmen opened fire with machine guns around midnight at a cafe in the predominately Shi’ite Muslim town of Balad where young men had gathered to start the weekend, police and hospital sources. At least 12 were killed and 25 wounded.
The assailants fled and hours later one of them set off his explosive vest at a nearby vegetable market after police and Shi’ite militia members cornered him in a disused building and exchanged gunfire, security sources said. Four were killed and two critically wounded, medical sources added.
Islamic State said in a statement distributed online by supporters that three suicide attackers targeting Shi’ite militiamen had detonated their explosives, though security sources said they had only identified one bomber.
A Reuters witness saw the scorched body of a suspected assailant hanging upside down from a post outside the cafe on Friday morning.
Residents said they had seized the man from a nearby house where he had fled following the attack. They said they had burned him alive after he confessed. An intelligence official confirmed this account.
Islamic State nearly overran Balad, 80 kms (50 miles) north of Baghdad, in 2014 and maintains a frontline around 40 kms away.
Friday’s attackers had passed three police checkpoints before reaching their target, said police sources who declined to be identified as they were not authorised to speak to the media.
Security forces deployed throughout the town, fearing more attacks.
The intelligence official said fighters from the powerful Iranian-backed Badr Organisation raided a nearby house and detained 13 members of a Sunni family. There were reports of gunfire in an adjacent orchard.
Iraqi authorities are facing scrutiny over security breaches that allowed suicide attackers to set off three bombs on Wednesday in Baghdad, killing at least 80 people.
The country is also struggling through a political crisis over a cabinet overhaul that has crippled government for weeks and threatens to undermine the US-backed war against Islamic State, which still controls swathes of territory in the north and west it seized in 2014.
The fight against the ultra-hardline Sunni militants has exacerbated Iraq’s sectarian conflict, mostly between the Sunni minority and the Shi’ite majority, that emerged after the US-led invasion in 2003.
A 22-year-old victim named Tahseen told a doctor he had been smoking a water pipe when a man wearing civilian clothes and a bandolier filled with ammunition crossed the street towards the al-Furat Cafe. He recounted hearing several blasts, likely from stun bombs, amid gunfire that lasted about 10 minutes.
The United States and its allies staged 21 strikes against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria on Thursday in their latest round of daily attacks against the militant group, the coalition leading the operations said in a statement on Friday.
The Combined Joint Task Force said 14 strikes in Iraq hit targets near 10 cities, including Mosul, Ramadi and Falluja.
The strikes hit seven units of Islamic State fighters, as well as a mortar system, a machine gun and other weapons and fighting positions, among other targets, it said.
In Syria, seven strikes near five cities hit six tactical units, seven fighting positions and a bunker, according to the statement.
Salam Hussein’s father was once his soccer coach. Now he’s his physical therapist, hoping that his son will one day be able to walk again.
Hussein was sprayed with shrapnel when a suicide bomber blew himself up in a stadium south of the Iraqi capital where the 23-year-old had been playing for his local club soccer team, Al-Rafidain. Hussein was wounded in the back of his neck, leaving his left arm and leg paralyzed.
While hundreds of Iraqis are killed every month in bombings — 29 died in the March 25 blast in the stadium in Iskandariyah — Hussein’s plight underscores the problems faced by the thousands who are left wounded in such attacks, many of them with serious injuries. Iraq’s health system is dilapidated, often without facilities for long-term treatment, and there are few services for the disabled, who are often left without freedom of movement and unable to work or attend school.
“I just want to be able to walk again,” Hussein said from his family’s living room sofa where he’s unable to sit up straight without being propped by pillows.
Hussein, the father of a 4-month-old son, made his living as a businessman, playing soccer on the side, but he’s been unable to go back to work. “I know that my dreams of playing soccer have vanished.”
The bomber struck during a post-match awards ceremony while the stadium was still packed in Iskandariyah, 30 miles (48 kilometers) south of Baghdad. More than 60 people were wounded, many of them children. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the bombing.
Initially, Hussein spent 20 days in an Iraqi hospital, but the doctors there soon concluded that his injuries were beyond their capabilities. Unable to afford to send Hussein abroad for treatment, his family requested government help, but were turned down. A local businessman instead stepped forward to cover Hussein’s medical bills and sent him to India for a series of surgeries.
Hussein was told by doctors in India that his motor skills will never fully recover from his injuries, but with intense physical therapy he may be able to walk again within a year.
That role is now taken by his father, Ali, who is the coach of Al-Rafidain.
He helps his son in therapy exercises, stretching his arm and leg. Ali Hussein now supports his son’s family as well as his own. He says working and helping with physical therapy has been exhausting, but he’s hopeful his son will heal.
“If he can’t walk again, his future will be difficult, he won’t have a future,” he said.
The stadium where Hussein once played has been transformed into a shrine for those who were killed. Black posters of martyrs and colorful plastic flowers line the pitch, in one corner lies a pile of mostly child-sized sandals abandoned by victims and fans who fled the attack. Abdullah Abdul-Hussein, a local government official, said the central government in Baghdad also needs to assist the attack’s survivors.
“We are asking the government to give aid to treat the injured people of the Iskandariyah blast,” Abdul-Hussein said.
On his cell phone Salam Hussein flips through photos and videos of his life before the March attack: snaps of his chubby, smiling son and a portrait of the soccer team. The next images are of Hussein in a bare hospital room, the walls exposed cinderblock. Hussein is smiling and holding up a peace sign despite his entire left side being in bandages.
“For now all I’m doing is watching soccer matches on TV,” Hussein said. His favorite club, he adds: Barcelona.
Yazidi campaigners are calling for world leaders to declare their treatment by Islamic State as genocide to escalate obligations for the international community to prevent crimes against them and punish those victimising women and children.
Islamic State militants have killed, raped and enslaved thousands of Yazidis since 2014, forcing over 400,000 of the religious minority group to flee their homes in northern Iraq, accusing them of being devil worshippers.
According to the United Nations, the Sunni militants enslaved about 7,000 women and girls in 2014, mainly Yazidis whose faith blends elements of Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Islam, and is still holding 3,500, some as sex slaves.
But while the United States, the European Parliament and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe have all described the Islamist militant group’s actions as genocide, other countries are yet to follow.
Yazidi campaigners are pushing for international justice for the crimes committed against them by Islamic State.
Hanifa — who did not want to give her full name for fear of reprisals — escaped the Islamic State incursion into Sinjar in summer 2014 but her five sisters did not. They were captured as they fled and she has not seen or heard from them since.
“Thousands of our girls and women have committed suicide. Ten-year-old girls are being sold four times a day … We the Yazidi are powerless and no one to back us,” Hanifi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a recent interview.
“We want international protection and our genocide to be recognized .. as without international protection and apply the rule of genocide, this will happen all over again.”
Islamic State militants have exploited the five-year civil war in Syria to seize areas in that country and in neighbouring Iraq, taking control of swathes of territory with an eye toward establishing jihadism in the heart of the Arab world.
The United States began air strikes against militant targets in Iraq in August 2014 in part to save the Yazidis and in March this year declared the attacks on Yazidis and other religious groups amounted to genocide.
US officials hope the determination will help them win political and budget support from Congress and other nations to help the targeted groups return home if and when Islamic State-controlled areas such as the Iraqi city of Mosul are liberated.
But for displaced Yazidis such as Nasreen the process is taking too long with thousands of Yazidis still enslaved.
Nasreen was 19 when she was captured two years ago by Islamic State in Sinjar with 19 other members of her family.
Her family was split up into men and women, then into smaller groups that were shunted from place to place with little food and never knowing if they would live or die.
Two years later Nasreen managed to escape but has no idea where the rest of her family is — or if they are alive.
“Islamic State destroyed our lives and future,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“I keep thinking about the girls who are still in their grip. Although I have been freed, I always think of them. Life was like being in hell in their hands.”
She called for international intervention.
“The world is not listening to us and not doing anything for us,” she said. “I ask European countries to do something for us, and recognise our genocide.”
Dakhil Osman Khidir Al-Yazidi, formerly a wedding singer, fears the lives of the Yazidi will never return to normal.
“Why are we being killed? … Why all this silence from the world countries, and especially Iraq. We want them to be punished by international courts,” he said.