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Death toll rises to 84 in deadliest IS attack in Iraq since fall of Mosul

Many of the 84 dead in suicide and gun attack near the city of Nasiriyah were Shia Muslim pilgrims, some of them Iranian
Some of the aftermath of the attacks in Nassiriya on 14 September (AFP)

Gunmen and suicide car bombers killed at least 84 people Thursday near the Iraqi city of Nasiriyah, in the deadliest attack claimed by the Islamic State group since it lost second city Mosul.

The death toll rose overnight as more bodies were recovered from the wreckage of the attack.

The assailants struck at midday, opening fire on a restaurant before getting into a car and blowing themselves up at a nearby security checkpoint, officials said.

They left a trail of destruction, with charred bodies scattered on the ground near the burnt-out wrecks of cars, buses and trucks, an AFP correspondent on the spot said.

"The death toll has risen to 84 after the discovery of 10 more bodies at the scene of the attack," said Jassem al-Khalidi, health director for Dhiqar province, which has largely been spared the violence that has plagued northern and central Iraq.

"Another 93 people were wounded, many of them seriously," Khalidi told AFP.

Many of the dead in Thursday's attack near the city of Nasiriyah were Shia Muslim pilgrims, some of them Iranian, officials said.

The attack was quickly claimed by the Islamic State group, which appears to be switching to insurgent attacks after suffering a string of setbacks on the battlefield.

The area targeted by Thursday's attack lies on a highway used by Shia pilgrims from Iran and southern Iraq to travel to the shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala further north.

The Sunni militants have been sliding from defeat to defeat in Iraq and Syria, three years after declaring a cross-border "caliphate".

Security sources said the attackers were disguised as members of the Hashd al-Shaabi, a mainly Shia paramilitary alliance which has fought alongside the army and police against IS in northern Iraq.

Rescue workers and members of the security forces placed bodies in ambulances and cleared away rubble and the carcasses of burnt-out cars from the site.

Nearby shelters built of corrugated metal were reduced to scraps of metal, twisted by heat.

IS claim

IS claimed responsibility for the attacks in a statement carried by its Amaq propaganda arm.

It said several suicide bombers had staged the assault on a restaurant and a security checkpoint, killing "dozens of Shiites".

The hardline Sunni group regularly stages attacks in Iraq, where it has lost swathes of territory to US-backed pro-government forces.

Iraqi forces recaptured the city of Tal Afar and the surrounding region from IS on 31 August, adding to the pressure on the militants.

Thursday's attacks come as Iraqi forces backed by tribal fighters closed in one of the last IS bastions in the country: the Al-Qaim area on the border with war-ravaged Syria.

On Wednesday, an AFP correspondent in that area saw several artillery units positioned around the towns of Rawa and Anna, 100 kilometres from the border with Syria.

The group's only other stronghold is Hawija, in Kirkuk province some 300 kilometres north of Baghdad.

But despite these setbacks, IS still has hundreds of fighters ready to carry out suicide attacks.

In addition, any military offensive in Hawija is expected to be postponed due to a planned referendum on Kurdish independence on 25 September.

Acting at the request of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, the Iraqi parliament on Thursday sacked the governor of Kirkuk over his decision for the northern province to also take part in the Kurdish referendum.

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