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Iran demands 'resolute' action by Baghdad after pilgrim buses attack

Rouhani vows Iran will fight until 'final victory' after IS-claimed blast near Karbala kills 70, most of them Iranians participating in Shia pilgrimage
Blood stains the side of a minibus destroyed in Thursday's blast at a petrol station (Reuters)

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani called for tougher action by the Iraqi government on Friday after a suicide bombing killed at least 70 people, most of them Iranian pilgrims.

Thursday's huge lorry bomb blast, claimed by the Islamic State group, ripped through a petrol station south of Baghdad where buses packed with pilgrims returning from the Shia shrine city of Karbala were parked.

"I strongly request the Iraqi government to deal more resolutely with the perpetrators of such inhumane acts," Rouhani said in a message published by the official IRNA news agency.

"The Islamic Republic of Iran is determined to wage an all-out fight against terrorists and extremists, and is confident that with unity and solidarity from the people of Iraq, we shall soon witness its final victory."

Thursday's bombing in Babylon province came as Iraqi forces continued a huge assault on IS bastion Mosul with support from Iran as well as a US-led coalition.

Fewer than 10 of the dead were Iraqis, the head of the provincial security committee, Falah al-Radhi, told the AFP news agency. All of the rest were Iranians.

The attack took place near a village called Shomali, about 120km southeast of Baghdad.

IS, which is fighting to defend its Mosul stronghold in northern Iraq, claimed responsibility for the attack.

In a statement quoted by the SITE Intelligence Group, IS said a bomber "blew up his vehicle amidst their assembly, inflicting among them more than 200 killed and wounded, including Iranians."

Videos circulating on social media showed debris scattered over a large area along the main highway linking Baghdad to the main southern port city of Basra.

"There are completely charred corpses at the scene," said Radhi, who added that at least 20 wounded were transferred to nearby hospitals.

The Joint Operations Command in Baghdad issued a statement saying the truck was packed with 500 litres of ammonium nitrate, a chemical compound used in many explosive devices.

Translation: IS claims bomb explosion south of Baghdad killing 80 people, mostly Iranians 

Diversionary attacks

As many as 20 million people visited Karbala, home to the mausoleum of Imam Hussein, for Arbaeen this year. According to the Iraqi authorities, about three million of them were Iranians.

Iraq had deployed 25,000 members of its security forces in and around the shrine city, which lies southwest of Baghdad, to protect the pilgrims from a feared IS attack.

The militant group, which is losing ground in Mosul, has carried out a series of high-profile diversionary attacks since Iraqi forces launched a huge offensive against their northern stronghold last month.

Elite forces battled IS militants in eastern Mosul on Thursday, looking for fresh momentum in their five-week-old offensive to retake Iraq's second city.

Maan al-Saadi, a commander with the Counter Terrorism Service (CTS), told AFP on the frontline in Mosul that his forces were fighting IS in the neighbourhood of Al-Khadraa.

"They cannot flee. They have two choices - give up or die," he said.

Over the past few days, Iraqi forces have cut off the main supply line running from Mosul to the western border with Syria, where IS still controls the city of Raqqa.

The US-led coalition also bombed bridges over the Tigris River that splits Mosul in two, reducing IS’s ability to resupply the eastern front.

"The Iraqi advance on the south and southeast of the city has started to pick up some steam, which we think is a really great development," coalition spokesman Colonel John Dorrian said.

'Brutal' fighting

"It is extraordinarily tough fighting, just brutal, but there is an inevitability to it. The Iraqis are going to beat them," he said.

IS fighters moving in an intricate network of tunnels have used snipers, booby traps and suicide car bombers to stop Iraqi forces.

The authorities have not released casualty figures since the start of the offensive, but fighters have admitted to being surprised by how fierce IS resistance has been.

Iraqi forces launched the offensive on 17 October to retake Mosul, where IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed a caliphate in 2014.

They are also edging towards the city from a northern front as well as from the south, where they are within striking distance of Mosul airport.

Among the forces deployed south and west of the city are the Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Units), an umbrella for paramilitaries dominated by Tehran-backed militias.

They have focused their operations on Tal Afar, a large town still held by IS west of Mosul, and on Wednesday announced they had cut the main road between it and Syria.

That would make for a very long and dangerous journey for IS fighters attempting to move between Mosul and Raqqa.

The International Organisation for Migration said on Thursday that about 76,000 people had been displaced by the Mosul offensive since 17 October.

It said 7,000 people had already returned to their homes, leaving roughly 69,000 still displaced, most of them in camps.