A suicide car bombing claimed by the Daesh ripped through a busy Baghdad shopping district Sunday, killing at least 125 people in the deadliest attack this year in Iraq’s capital.
The blast hit the Karrada district early in the day as the area was packed with shoppers ahead of this week’s holiday marking the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
It came a week after Iraqi security forces recaptured Fallujah from Daesh, leaving Mosul as the only Iraqi city under the jihadist group’s control.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered changes to Baghdad security measures in response to the bombing, which security officials said also wounded more than 180 people.
Abadi visited the site of the attack and vowed “punishment” for the perpetrators, according to his office, which later announced three days of mourning for the victims.
The blast set buildings ablaze, and firemen were still working to extinguish them some 12 hours later.
Men carried the bodies of two victims out of one burned building and a crowd of people looked on from the rubble-filled street as emergency personnel worked at the site.
A member of the civil defence forces said that it would take “a number of days” to recover the bodies of the victims.
Hussein Ali, a 24-year-old former soldier, said six workers at his family’s shop were killed, their bodies so badly burned they could not be identified.
“I will return to the battlefront. At least there, I know the enemy so I can fight him. But here, I don’t know who I’m fighting,” Ali told AFP.
– ‘Cowardly and heinous act’ –
Daesh issued a statement claiming responsibility for the suicide bombing, saying it was carried out by an Iraqi as part of “ongoing security operations”.
The jihadist group said the blast targeted Iraq’s Shiite Muslim majority, whom the Sunni extremists consider heretics and frequently attack in Baghdad and elsewhere.
UN Iraq envoy Jan Kubis condemned the “cowardly and heinous act of unparalleled proportions,” calling on authorities to bring those responsible to justice.
Officials said another explosion in the Shaab area of northern Baghdad killed at least one person and wounded four on Sunday, but the cause of the blast was disputed.
Bombings in the capital have decreased since Daesh overran large areas north and west of Baghdad in June 2014, with the jihadists apparently more concerned with operations elsewhere.
But the group has struck back against Iraqi civilians after suffering military setbacks, and in May, Baghdad was rocked by a series of blasts that killed more than 150 people in seven days.
A video posted on social media showed men — apparently angry at the government’s failure to prevent the carnage in Karrada — throwing rocks at what was said to be Abadi’s convoy.
A bystander could also be heard cursing at Abadi in another video.
But the premier struck a conciliatory tone over anger directed towards him.
– Daesh defeat in Fallujah –
“I understand the emotional feelings and actions that occurred in a moment of sadness and anger,” Abadi said in a statement.
With thousands of vehicles moving in and out of the city each day, such bombings are difficult to prevent.
But there are also flaws in security measures in the city, especially the continued use of fake bomb detectors at checkpoints years after the man who sold them to Iraq was jailed for fraud in Britain.
Abadi announced a series of changes to security measures following the Sunday bombing, including scrapping the fake detectors.
He also ordered the deployment of scanning devices at entrances to Baghdad to be sped up, directed that security personnel be banned from using mobile phones at checkpoints, and also called for increased aerial reconnaissance and coordination among security forces.
Iraqi forces completely recaptured Fallujah, a city 50 kms west of Baghdad, from the jihadists a week ago.
Anti-government fighters seized Fallujah in early 2014 and it later became one of Daesh’s main strongholds in the country.
Daesh’s defeat there was compounded by a devastating series of air strikes targeting jihadist forces as they sought to flee the Fallujah area.
Iraqi and U.S-led coalition aircraft destroyed hundreds of Daesh vehicles and killed dozens of fighters in two days of strikes against jihadist convoys after the end of the Fallujah battle, officials said.
With Fallujah retaken, Iraqi forces are now setting their sights on second city Mosul, the last major population center held by Daesh in Iraq.