Bloody night for Iraq as country rocked by 3 major attacks
Three bloody attacks struck Iraq on Monday evening, with gunmen raiding a Baghdad shopping mall, a bomb rocking a busy market in the capital and further bombings killing at least 20 in a town north of Baghdad.
The first attack saw gunmen detonate a car bomb before spraying gunfire in a crowded area and taking hostages in a shopping mall in eastern Baghdad, killing at least 18 people, Iraqi officials said. Dozens of others were also injured.
According to officials who spoke to AP, police raided the mall about half an hour after the attack, clashing with attackers and killing two while arresting four others.
Initial reports said that 10 people had been killed with the death toll quickly rising. It is believed that four police officers were killed in the hour-and-a-half standoff.
The shopping centre was four or five floors high and was housed in a busy commercial area of Baghdad al-Jadida, a populous Shia-majority area on the eastern edge of the Iraqi capital.
The Islamic State (IS) group has taken responsibility for the attack, and a police source described the gunmen as "wearing Daesh-style clothes" - using an Arabic acronym for the group.
"A car came ... gunmen came out of it and spread out. They started shooting, killing people, there were lots of dead people," said a witness, Salman Hussein.
The shocked young man, wearing a black track suit, recounted how one of the attackers held a shop owner and spoke on a mobile phone before detonating his suicide belt.
"The car they came in was laden with explosives and also blew up," he said.
The head of Baghdad Operations Command, Lieutenant General Abdelamir al-Shammari, insisted to reporters on the scene that the situation was quickly brought under control.
He denied reports by several officials in the Baghdad police and in the interior ministry that the attackers held several people hostage in the nearby Zahrat Baghdad mall.
But a senior police officer said the attackers entered the mall and took hostages after blowing up a car bomb and spraying gunfire on the street.
"When the security forces got too close, they killed three hostages," he said. Several other sources gave a similar account of events.
"These people were shooting everywhere, there was even one guy with an RPG," said Fadhel, another witness from Baghdad al-Jadida.
"I saw the body of a small child strewn on the ground over there, human flesh ... What were the sins these people committed to deserve this?" he said.
IS has carried out dozens of suicide car bomb attacks but Monday's hostage-taking would be the first of its kind since IS seized control of large swathes of Iraq in 2014.
In a separate incident, a car bomb rocked a crowded market in southeast Baghdad, killing five and wounding 12, hospital and police officials told AP. No one has as yet taken responsibility for the blast.
The Iraqi authorities have now locked down the capital's Green District - home to many foreign diplomats and Iraqi politicians - in response to the two incidents. Several key roads, shopping malls and bridges have also been closed for security reasons.
However, a third attack has since also been reported in the Iraqi town of Muqdadiyah northeast of Baghdad, officers said.
A bomb exploded at the cafe on Monday evening and a suicide bomber detonated an explosives-rigged vehicle after people gathered at the scene, killing at least 20 people, a police captain and an army colonel, AFP reported. Al Jazeera, however, said that the town had been hit by two suicide bombs that targeted a casino, killing 18 people.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack. The officers said that Shia residents set alight several Sunni homes and a mosque following the attack.
A top Iraqi army officer declared that Diyala province, where Muqdadiyah is located, had been "liberated" from IS in late January 2015, but that has not brought an end to attacks by the militants.
Monday's attacks come less than two weeks after Iraqi security forces and pro-government militias said that they had flushed IS out of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, after months of fighting. The re-capture of Ramadi was hailed as a military breakthrough, but IS has since launched a string of attacks aimed at Iraqi security services in the west and north.