BAGHDAD, March 26, (Agencies): Iraqi officials say the death toll from a suicide bombing at a soccer stadium that was claimed by the Islamic State group has climbed to 41, with another 105 people wounded. The security and public health officials provided the updated toll Saturday on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters. The bombing took place Friday during a match in the small stadium in the city of Iskanderiyah, 30 miles (50 kms) from the capital, Baghdad. IS claimed the attack, saying it had targeted Shi’ite militiamen.
Iraq on Saturday buried the victims, among them many young boys, of a suicide attack that ripped through a trophy ceremony after a football tournament and killed 41 people. The bomber, who himself looks like a teenager on a photo distributed by the Islamic State group that claimed the attack, cut through a crowd gathered after the game and blew himself up.
Babil province announced three days of mourning following the attack, that sparked condemnation from visiting UN chief Ban Ki-moon and outrage across the global footballing community. “There are 41 dead and also 105 wounded, 12 of whom are in a critical condition,” an official in Babil province health directorate told AFP. “Seventeen of those killed are boys aged between 10 and 16,” the official said.
The attack took place in the Babil province village of Al-Asriya, which lies near Iskandariyah, a town about 40 kms (25 miles) south of the capital. The bomber detonated his suicide vest late afternoon on Friday as officials were handing trophies to the players after the tournament. A video posted on social media shows one official speaking in front of a table covered with trophies and calling out the name of a player before a huge blast.
The footage cuts off with a big flash of yellow light. “The suicide bomber cut through the crowd to approach the centre of the gathering and blew himself up as the mayor was presenting awards to the players,” Ali Nashmi, an 18-year-old witness, told AFP.
The mayor, Ahmed Shaker, was among the dead, as was one of his bodyguards and at least five members of the security forces. Pictures posted on social media of the blast site showed mangled goal posts smeared with blood. The US State Department extended its condolences to the bereaved in a statement, as did the UN secretary general who was visiting Iraq for talks. “I would like to take this opportunity to express my deepest condolences to the people and government of Iraq, and particularly those members of the families affected by terrorist attacks yesterday,” the UN chief told reporters. Gianni Infantino, the new head of world football’s main governing body FIFA, said he was “shocked and terribly saddened”. “Around the world, football unites people. It is a very sad day, when people, going to a match together, become the victims of such violence,” Infantino said in a statement.
The Asian Football Confederation also released a statement condemning the bombing. “Football is a powerful force for good and our game has a long history of bringing people together even during conflicts around the world,” it said. “Using football and sport stadiums as a stage for these heinous acts of violence is a cowardly, completely unjust and indiscriminate act,” the AFC said.
IS has been losing territory steadily in Iraq for almost a year. In the most recent operations, Iraqi forces have been gaining ground in the western province of Anbar and have just begun their reconquest of the province of Nineveh. Observers have warned that, as their self-proclaimed “caliphate” shrinks towards extinction, IS fighters are likely to revert to their old guerrilla tactics and ramp up suicide attacks on civilian targets. Meanwhile, a group of suicide bombers from the Islamic State group killed three Iraqi soldiers Saturday in an attack on a military base hosting hundreds of coalition advisers, officers said. “Four suicide bombers this morning infiltrated the military base of Al-Asad on its northern edge,” said Major General Ali Ibrahim Daboun, head of the Al-Jazeera Operations Command. “The bombers were of various nationalities, they were killed by Iraqi security forces,” he told AFP, without specifying any casualties among army ranks. Al-Asad air base, located about 180 kms (110 miles) northwest of Baghdad in Anbar province, is one of the largest military installations in the country.
It is home to Iraqi federal forces and tribal fighters currently engaged in operations to retake the nearby town of Hit from IS, as well as to a large contingent of foreign military advisers. Colonel Steve Warren, the spokesman for the US-led coalition fighting IS in Iraq and Syria, said no foreigners were involved in the incident. Another Iraqi security source said the number of bombers was higher than four and said one of them managed to detonate his suicide vest, killing three Iraqi soldiers and wounding four. “One of the killed soldiers had the rank of major,” the officer said on condition of anonymity because he is not authorised to speak to the press.
The Baghdad-based “war media cell” that issues statements for Iraq’s myriad pro-government forces also said three soldiers had been killed in the attack. It said the site of the IS attack was an outpost on the northern edge of Al-Asad base and warned that the casualty figures were provisional. Jihadist fighters are holed up in Hit, a Euphrates Valley town about 145 kms west of Baghdad, with Iraqi forces closing in on them from several sides.
The government has had to pull several units out of the Anbar offensive however to beef up security in Baghdad, where protesters have been camping outside the fortified Green Zone to demand reforms. In other news, powerful Iraqi Shi’ite Muslim leader Moqtada al-Sadr may extend a sit-in protest that his followers are holding in Baghdad to demand a government overhaul to fight corruption, local television said on Saturday.
“The sit-in may be extended,” said a news flash on al-Taif, a channel affiliated with his political group. It did not provide further details. Sadr arrived in Baghdad on Saturday from his base in the holy Shi’ite city of Najaf, south of the capital, according to one of his military aides. On Friday, Sadr called on Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to announce a new cabinet line-up that would see current ministers replaced by technocrats with no party affiliation to tackle systemic political patronage that has abetted graft.