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35 killed in Iraqi Shia shrine attack, days after Baghdad blast

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi sacks high-profile security and intelligence officials after bloody week for Iraq
Iraqis gather on 7 July in front of a memorial for victims of the massive bombing in Baghdad's Karrada neighbourhood (AFP)

Islamic State (IS) group militants have attacked a Shia shrine north of Baghdad, killing 35 people, just days after the most deadly attack in the country's history.

In the wake of the new attack, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced on Friday the sacking of several of top-level security officials, which follows the resignation earlier this week of the country's interior minister over failed security reforms.

The overnight attack on the Sayyid Mohammed shrine in Balad, which involved suicide bombers and gun and mortar fire, also wounded 65 people, the Joint Operations Command spokesperson said in a statement.

The attack followed a devastating bombing in Baghdad on 3 July that tore through a crowded shopping area ahead of the Eid al-Fitr holiday that marks the end of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan and killed 292 people.

The Sayyid Mohammed shrine, 70km north of the capital, was first targeted with mortar rounds, according to the command spokesperson. Suicide bombers then arrived at the shrine and opened fire, it said.

Two of the bombers blew themselves up in a market next to the shrine, while the third was killed and his explosive belt defused, it said, without specifying which forces killed the bomber.

The bombers were able to pass through the cement checkpoints in place to protect the shrine by pretending to be members of the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), the volunteer militia force mobilised to fight IS, Iraqi journalist Ali Jabouri told Al-Jazeera.

A curfew was imposed in Balad early on Friday, as well as the nearby towns of Samarra and Dhuluiya.

After the bombing, Muqtada al-Sadr, the influential Shia cleric, called on members of the Brigades of Peace - the armed wing of his followers - to head to Balad as quickly as possible and coordinate with security forces to protect the shrine.

Large numbers of members of the PMU have also headed to Balad, a security source told al-Araby al-Jadeed.

A tribal elder in the area, Fadhil al-Juwari, told the site that the PMUs had arrested dozens of Iraqis in the area and transported them to their base south of Balad.

Prime Minister Abadi also announced that he was sacking the operations chief for Baghdad, Abdel Amir al-Shammari, as well as several security and intelligence officials who have yet to be identified.

The attack came just hours after Iraqi Health Minister Adila Hamoud announced that the death toll from Sunday's bombing had reached 292.

The identities of 177 of the dead have yet to be identified - Hamoud said 115 bodies have now been handed back to their families. 

The minister on Tuesday told AFP that the process of identifying the unknown dead - which she put at 150 at the time - was expected to take 15-45 days.

People have been furious over delays in determining the fate of their loved ones, and with the number of unidentified bodies now bigger, it may take even longer.

Lack of emergency exits led to mass deaths

The attack has overshadowed what would normally be a joyful holiday for Iraqi Muslims, instead turning it into a time of mourning and grief.

Investigators now believe that they now know what caused Sunday's attack to claim so many lives.

Police Major General Talib Khalil Rahi said the suicide bomber detonated a minibus loaded with plastic explosives and ammonium nitrate.

The initial blast killed a limited number of people, but flames spread and trapped people inside shopping centres that lacked emergency exits, Rahi told a news conference in Baghdad.

The raging fires have made it difficult to identify the dead.

Interior Minister Mohammed Ghabban resigned in protest following the bombing, saying in a statement that he was stepping down due to the "severance of security reforms and the lack of united co-ordination in the security services".

An official in Abadi's office told AFP on Wednesday that the premier had accepted the minister's resignation, but did not issue an official statement until Friday. 

Authorities have also announced the execution of five convicts and the arrest of 40 suspected militants in an apparent bid to limit fallout from the attack.

Footage filmed during Abadi's visit to the scene of the blast on Sunday showed angry crowds ejecting the prime minister from the area, with rocks and empty bottles thrown at his convoy.

Sunday's bombing was claimed by IS, which has its roots in the insurgency that began after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in the 2003 US-led invasion.

IS overran large areas north and west of Baghdad in 2014, but Iraqi forces have since regained significant territory from the group.

In response to the battlefield setbacks, the Sunni group has hit back against civilians, and experts have warned there may be more bombings as IS continues to lose ground.

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