- As Baghdad declares state of emergency following protesters storming parliament
The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for a bombing Saturday east of Baghdad, according to a statement posted on an IS-affiliated website. The attack killed at least 21 people and wounded at least 42 others, according to Iraqi police and hospital officials. The IS statement described the attack as a three-ton truck bombing.
The attack targeted Shiite civilians shopping in an open-air market selling fruit, vegetables and meat in Nahrawan, according to Iraq’s Interior Ministry. The IS statement and initial reports from local officials at the scene claimed the bombing targeted Shiite pilgrims walking to Baghdad’s holy Kadhimiyah shrine.
“It was not a road for people walking toward Kadhimiyah,” said Brig. Gen. Saad Mann, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry and Baghdad Operations Command.
The attack’s casualty figures were confirmed by police and hospital officials who spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to the press.
Thousands of Shiite pilgrims from across Iraq are expected to travel on foot to the shrine of 8th-century Imam Moussa al-Kadhim over the coming days to commemorate the anniversary of his death. Security in the capital has been tightened in anticipation of the crowds; additional checkpoints have been set up and roads have been closed.
The Islamic State group regularly carries out attacks targeting Iraq’s Shiite majority, including attacks on Shiite pilgrims and civilians in Baghdad’s Shiite neighborhoods. IS views Shiites as apostates deserving of death.
Mann said the attack in Baghdad was carried out by IS in response to recent territorial losses in Iraq. “The only strategic weapon left for them are (suicide bombers),” Mann said. While IS still controls large swaths of Iraq’s west and north, the group has suffered a series of territorial losses over the past year. Most recently IS fighters were pushed out of the western town of Hit.
In the face of those losses, analysts and Iraqi security officials say the extremist group is increasingly turning to insurgent-style attacks in Baghdad and other areas far from the frontline fighting.
More than 40 civilians have been killed in high-profile bombings in Baghdad over the past month. On March 25th an IS-claimed suicide bombing attack on a stadium killed 29 and wounded 60.
Saturday’s attack also comes amid a political crisis in Iraq as the country’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is under increasing public pressure after repeated failed attempts at political reform to combat corruption and waste.
In the meantime, a state of emergency has reportedly been declared in Baghdad after supporters of the Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr stormed the Green Zone and entered the parliament building.
Hundreds of people gathered in protest at the failure of Iraqi MPs to convene for a vote to approve new ministers. The unrest comes after weeks of political turmoil in Baghdad over efforts by the prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, to replace party-affiliated ministers with technocrats. MPs failed to reach a quorum to approve the measures on Saturday.
People gathered outside the heavily fortified green zone, comprising government buildings and foreign embassies, after crossing a bridge over the Tigris river chanting: “The cowards ran away.”
They reportedly attached cables to the tops of concrete walls surrounding the green zone and pulled them down to gain access. Protesters are believed to have damaged cars belonging to MPs, and a video emerged online of a man in a grey suit being beaten.
Footage from inside the parliament building appears to show scores of people across both levels waving flags and chanting. “You are not staying here. This is your last day in the green zone,” shouted one protester, according to Agence France-Presse.
All entrances to Baghdad have been closed “as a precautionary measure to maintain the capital’s security”, a security official said. A UN spokesman and western diplomats inside the green zone said their compounds had been locked down.
The UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (Unami) , which has its headquarters in the Green Zone, said it was gravely concerned about the situation. In a statement it condemned any violence against elected officials and urged “calm, restraint and respect for Iraq’s constitutional institutions at this crucial juncture”.
It said the UN mission “continues to operate from its headquarters in Baghdad’s international zone and is in constant contact with parties to facilitate a solution that meets the demands of the people for reform.”
Iraq’s elite counter-terrorism forces had yet to be called on to reinforce security, and police and troops appeared to be taking no action against the protesters.
“We still view this as a demonstration,” said Sabah al-Numan, a spokesman for the counter-terrorism forces. “We aren’t taking any part in this as it’s not something regarding terrorism.”
He said that if the unrest escalated his forces may have to intervene to “protect the legitimacy of the government”.
The unrest began after Sadr held a news conference in the holy Shia city of Najaf and condemned the political deadlock. He threatened last month that his supporters would storm the green zone, but he did not order them to enter the area in his address on Saturday.
He said the politicians “refused to end corruption and refused to end quotas”, adding that he and his supporters would not participate in “any political process in which there are any type … of political party quotas”.
For years key government posts have been shared out based on political and sectarian quotas, which the demonstrators want to end. Abadi’s move to change the system has been opposed by powerful political parties that rely on control of ministries for patronage and funds.
Both Washington and the UN have said the political crisis could distract from the fight against Islamic State.
Also on Saturday, a bomb targeting Shia pilgrims near Baghdad killed at least 23 people. Isis later claimed responsibility for the attack.
MSN with additional report from Guardian