Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, Reuters reported, citing Iraqi Civil Defense chief Maj. Gen. Kadhim Salman. In a statement posted on the group’s Telegram communications channel early Friday, Islamic State claimed two of its men blew themselves up in Tayaran Square.
Although security forces continue to fight ragtag bands of Islamic State militants in Iraq’s peripheral regions, major security incidents in the capital are rare. Thursday’s attack was the deadliest to strike the capital in years. The last mass-casualty attack, striking the same square, took place in January 2018 and killed 27 people.
Khalid al-Mahna, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said the suicide bomber detonated his explosives after attracting a crowd by feigning sickness in the middle of the market.
When shoppers came to help those injured by the first blast, he said, someone else detonated a second bomb.
Thursday’s attack shattered a sense of relative security in the capital, raising questions about the Iraqi security forces’ preparedness in the face of a militant threat that has been diminished but by no means erased. Army units and special forces continue to arrest alleged Islamic State members at their homes in urban centers and say that sleeper cells remain prepared to mount strikes.
In a statement, an Iraqi military spokesman, Yahya Rasool, said the bombers detonated their explosives as they were pursued by security forces. Rasool said his unit had received information suggesting that an attack was coming. No uniformed security forces appeared to be visible in the surveillance video footage that showed the first blast.
Although a security breach in the heart of Baghdad is rare, experts cautioned that Thursday’s attack underscored the challenge of ending militant violence without far-reaching changes to how the country is governed.
“This is not to say that this is the beginning of extreme conflict in Iraq, or violence, but it is a reminder that there is yet to be a sustainable solution to govern the socio-economy and politics of Iraq,” said Renad Mansour, a senior research fellow at Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Program. “As long as there’s that incoherence, I think we expect, sadly, for these attacks to continue and increase in time because we’re just looking back as to what happened before under a similar context.”
The attack occurred at a time when life for ordinary Iraqis is becoming harder. The coronavirus pandemic has tanked global energy prices, plunging Iraq’s oil-dependent economy into crisis and forcing a devaluation of the currency. Unemployment has increased. The price of basic goods is rising, too.
While street cleaners swept blood from scene, families combed the site for relatives last seen there. Ahmed Qassim, 32, showed street vendors a photograph of his 20-year-old cousin, Abdullah, who was last seen peddling T-shirts. They said he had been taken away in an ambulance.
An elderly man with gray hair and spectacles wandered confused and distraught along a street leading to the marketplace. “Where is my son?” he shouted. “He’s just a kid who sells sunglasses and wants to live. Where is he?”
As he walked, young men were sifting through piles of clothes for body parts. For a moment, a teenager crouched to lay out candles for the dead. “We’re still looking for bodies, man,” a friend chided him. The teenager was stone-faced. “We got used to death,” he replied, as he lit the wicks one by one.
Compounding Iraq’s multiple crises, the country has also emerged again as a stage for geopolitical tensions, with Iran-backed Shiite militias launching rockets at U.S. diplomatic and military-linked targets and U.S. forces responding with airstrikes.
Three Americans and one Briton have been killed in those attacks. But for the most part, the dead and injured have been Iraqis caught in the crossfire.
After the Islamic State’s battlefield defeat here in 2017, the United States is reducing its troop presence to 2,500, with most of those performing advisory functions as the Iraqi military takes the lead in what remains of the fight.
“ISIS will be trying to make this part of a campaign to disrupt daily life and show it is still relevant and able to carry out extreme violence despite its territorial defeat,” said Sajad Jiyad, an Iraq-based fellow at the Century Foundation.
“Attacks hark back to painful memories when attacks on civilians were common. The government needs to restore confidence quickly and show it will not allow ISIS bombings to become a regular occurrence again.”
As the winter sun set Thursday, the funerals began. In a narrow alleyway by Tayaran Square, shock and anger were palpable. Young men held coffins aloft. Among the dead was a 32-year-old named Maher al-Swerawi, who died in the first explosion. His friend Hani Sabri ran out to reach his body, friends said. Sabri, who was 30, was killed in the second blast.
As the crowd moved along, one voice rang out above the din. It was Sabri’s mother.
“Hani, I told you not to go. Why did you go there?” she cried, her voice breaking.
“Why did you go?”