IS ignites sectarian tension with multiple Iraq bombings


After defeat in Ramadi, IS resorts to bombings in malls and cafes in Baghdad and Muqdadiya, sparking reprisals against Sunnis

An Iraqi child stares at the remnants of what was once a car (Suadad al-Salhy/MEE)
Suadad al-Salhy's picture
Last update: 
Wednesday 13 January 2016 10:04 UTC

BAGHDAD - Rawafid al-Hissnawi used to enjoy taking her children to the mall in Baghdad. "The malls have been the only available outlet for our children the last few years. They are secure, safe and include a lot of games and restaurants. You cannot imagine the joy of my kids when I tell them we'll go to the mall," she told Middle East Eye.

But now she fears that one safe public outlet is under threat after three Islamic State suicide bombers attacked a market complex on Monday in the eastern Baghdad Shia-majority area of Baghdad al-Jadida.

"What the hell is this? Why? Is there any other place still safe? Iraqi kids are poor and they are not allowed to live a normal life like their peers around the world," Hassnawi said while watching footage from the explosions.

The first attacker detonated a car bomb outside the building, while the others used suicide vests inside. Security sources said at least 18 people were killed and scores were wounded.

Hours later, two suicide bombers blew themselves up inside a three-floor cafe building in the eastern Shia-dominated city of Muqdadiya, 90km northeast of Baghdad, killing at least 23 people and wounding a further 51, security and medical sources said.  

Muqdadiya's suicide attack was followed by violent responses in the town itself and the nearby town of Shahraban.

At least six Sunni mosques, seven houses and 36 stores were either burned or bombed late on Monday in Muqdadiya, local officials and residents told MEE. Saif Talal, a local correspondent of a private Sunni-owned Iraqi satellite channel and his cameraman, Hassan al-Anbaki, were shot dead in an area just outside of Shahraban. Additionally, police said they found three unknown bodies in Baquba city, 55km east of Baghdad.

Local officials announced a curfew in Muqdadiya and Shahraban starting at 4pm local time.   

"Diyala Province has been witnessing the killing of innocents since last night as the [Shia] militias controlled Muqdadiya after the explosion," Omar al-Gharawi, Diyala's provincial council member told MEE by phone.

"We are trying to control the security situation after many houses, stores and mosques were burned," Gharawi said.

Iraqi security officials and analysts said these attacks were aimed at inciting Shias to attack Sunnis in these areas. Such sectarian conflict would distract the efforts of the Iraqi security forces, which are deeply involved in the battle against IS in Ramadi. Late on Monday, Iraqi security authorities sent three battalions to Muqdadiya in a bid to control the security situation there, officials told MEE.

The attacks, claimed by IS, hark back to core tactics used by the group and its predecessors - targeting civilian areas with guerilla-style tactics, rather than open warfare. And their success also raises questions about the effectiveness of Iraqi security agencies, and their attempts to eliminate sleeper cells in the capital and areas formerly under the control of IS.

IS had seized almost a third of the country's territories in the west and the north after the dramatic collapse of the Iraqi army in June 2014. Iraqi security forces, backed by the Shia-dominated paramilitary troops and Kurdish peshmerga, have been driving IS militants out of towns and cities in Anbar and Salahudeen provinces. On Monday, the Iraqi army announced that it finally completed the capture of Ramadi, the capital city of the vast Sunni-dominated desert province of Anbar.

"This act of terrorism is a desperate attempt by terrorist gangs [in response to] the victories achieved by our heroic troops in Ramadi and other areas," Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in a statement after he visited the scene of the explosion on Tuesday morning.

"We will not save any effort to fight these gangs and expel [them] and achieve the ultimate victory soon," he said.

A man looks out from his destroyed stairwell in Baghdad (MEE/Suadad al-Salhy)

Suicide bombings have become a trademark of Sunni militant organisations such as al-Qaeda and its off-shoot IS. Hundreds of attacks have taken place targeting civilian gatherings such as markets, schools, weddings and funerals. During the years following 2005, most of the attacks were carried out by non-Iraqis, leading to an outbreak of sectarian warfare that killed tens of thousands of Iraqis from both sects.

IS gains from security breaches

"Daesh is looking to create further problems and hurdles to complicate the security situation and distract the efforts of the security forces and hinder its progress in Anbar," said Abdulkareem Khalaf, a retired retired general and former spokesman of the Iraqi Interior Ministry.

Khalaf said that whoever controlled Anbar province would be able to control Iraq. The vast Sunni-dominated desert province controls the supply routes in Salahudeen in the north, Baghdad in the east, and the Shia holy cities of Karballa and Najaf.

"The next step of the Iraqi security forces, for sure, is Falluja and the other areas on the Euphrates bank, so Daesh had to use the sectarian card to ignite the area and find another burden to be added onto the shoulder of the security forces," Khalaf said. "And thanks to the irresponsible people in these areas (Muqdadiya and Shahraban), they (IS) succeeded," he added.

Monday's explosions also provide opportunity for Abadi's Shia and Sunni rivals to criticise his policies, which have been limited to political blocs' and parties' interventions regarding security issues.

"The security breaches that took place in Baghdad and Diyala last night is a big scandal which cannot be ignored, like its predecessors," Haitham al-Joubori, a Shia politician and ally of former Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, said in a statement.

"The Iraqi people's blood is not a test field for the losers. If this happened in another state we would have heard about massive resignations."