BAGHDAD — Militants wearing suicide vests stormed a busy mall in the Iraqi capital Monday as part of apparently coordinated attacks that killed at least 13 people and brought an end to a relative lull in Baghdad’s violence, authorities said.
The assault, which also included a car-bomb blast at the mall’s entrance, was the first major bloodshed in central Baghdad in weeks. It suggested that the Islamic State group was seeking to strike back after facing recent losses.
Iraq’s Interior Ministry placed the death toll at 13. Some news agencies, including the Associated Press, reported counts as high as 18, citing police and hospital sources.
The Islamic State, in a statement posted on an affiliated website, claimed responsibility for the attack. Iraqi forces, backed by U.S.-led airstrikes, have made recent gains against the militant group, including retaking control of Ramadi, a city west of Baghdad.
Initial reports said as many as four gunmen entered the Jawhara Mall in the New Baghdad neighborhood and took shoppers hostage. The Islamic State claim also mentioned four attackers, including three who triggered suicide blasts.
But Lt. Gen. Abdul-Amir al-Shammari, head of the Iraqi military’s Baghdad Operations Command, denied that the militants took captives.
A police captain, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media, said the gunmen seized some of the mall patrons and clashed with police forces before detonating explosives.
At least one of those killed was a child, Interior Ministry spokesman Saad Maan said.
An Iraqi journalist circulated photos from the aftermath of the attack that showed the severed, bloodied heads of what appeared to be three attackers. Other images showed the charred frame of a white vehicle on the street amid debris, as well as Iraqi security forces sifting through the rubble of blown-out storefronts.
The New Baghdad area is home to mainly Shiite Muslim residents and hosts several busy markets, which have been targets of Sunni insurgents over the years. The militants often strike civilian areas and religious sites in Shiite neighborhoods to maximize casualties.
But the mall attack, which included two gunmen who forced their way into the shopping center, appeared to deviate from typical insurgent tactics. Car bombs and improvised explosive devices explode regularly in markets and outside restaurants and cafes in the capital, but complex assaults with multiple attackers on civilian centers are less common.
The Jawhara Mall is a tall, gleaming building decorated with red, yellow and purple lights. Many residents in Baghdad have taken advantage of a recent lull in violence to shop, eat at restaurants and stroll along the Tigris River, which runs through the city.
According to the United Nations’ office in Iraq, 261 civilians were killed in violence and terrorism in greater Baghdad province last month, and 787 others were injured. More than 22,000 Iraqi civilians, including police officers, were killed across the country in 2015, the U.N. office said.
Iraq is also fighting a multi-front war with the Islamic State, which last month was driven from Ramadi, about 80 miles west of Baghdad.
“The enemy is using new tactics because of our recent victories [against them] in Ramadi and other areas. They are trying to distract the forces by carrying out attacks inside Baghdad,” Shammari said. “They wanted to take hostages, but our forces were quick and handled the situation.”