A double suicide bombing killed 26 people in Baghdad on Monday, officials said, the second such attack in the Iraqi capital in three days. Dr Abdel Ghani al-Saadi, health chief for east Baghdad, reported “26 dead and 90 wounded”. “Two suicide bombers blew themselves up in Tayyaran Square in central Baghdad,” said General Saad Maan, spokesman for the Joint Operations Command, which includes the army and the police. Tayyaran Square is a bustling centre of commerce and a place where day labourers gather in the early morning waiting for jobs. It has been the site of deadly attacks in the past. An AFP photographer at the site of the bombing said many ambulances had gathered and security forces had been deployed in large numbers.
Three suicide attacks claimed by Daesh killed at least 80 people near Nasiriyah in southern Iraq on Thursday and wounded more than 97, local police said.
Wearing security force uniforms and driving stolen army vehicles, the attackers targeted a police checkpoint and two restaurants on a highway near the city of Nasiriyah, using car bombs and suicide vests, the sources said.
Daesh claims responsibility
Daesh claimed responsibility in a statement on its Amaq news agency. The jihadist group said it had killed “dozens of Shi‘ites”. Daesh activity is usually concentrated in western and northern Iraq. Bomb attacks in the south, where the bulk of the country’s oil is produced and security forces hold a tighter grip, are relatively rare.
The head of Nasiriyah’s health directorate, Jassim al-Khalidi, said the city’s hospital had received 50 bodies and the death toll could rise because some of the wounded were in critical condition. The dead included civilians and members of security forces. Six attackers were also killed. Hospital sources said at least 15 Iranian pilgrims, who were visiting holy Shi‘ite shrines, were among the dead.
The deadliest attack was at a restaurant west of Nasiriyah. “One attacker blew up his suicide vest inside the crowded restaurant while a group of other gunmen started to throw grenades and fire at diners,” said police colonel Ali Abdul Hussain. Police sources said some police officers had died in the checkpoint attack, but the toll from that incident remained unclear.
Security sources said forces were placed on alert in most of the southern provinces, including the oil city of Basra, in case of similar attacks.
The hunt for Daesh leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is very much on. According to a report by CNN, at one point over the summer the US believed they had their best shot at killing the jihadist leader in an airstrike, several US officials said. The strike, which has never been publicly disclosed, was based on intelligence that indicated a senior Daesh leader, quite possibly al-Baghdadi, was at the particular location. The officials familiar with the strike tell CNN it has never been definitively determined if al-Baghdadi was actually killed. But one official said that over recent months “we tried to take several shots at him.” One reason the US remains uncertain if it killed al-Baghdadi is that in the days and weeks that followed the strike, US intelligence did not intercept any Daesh communications confirming his death and there was no discussion on Daesh social media accounts, US officials said. Given al-Baghdadi’s stature, the US expects to see significant chatter discussing his death, if he is killed. The strike occurred after a claim by Russia in June that the Daesh leader might have been killed in one of its airstrikes on the outskirts of Raqqa on May 28. The US has long believed that the Russian claim is not true.
In another instance CNN has learned that US military planners for a ground mission being conducted by US forces thought they were on al-Baghdadi’s trail for a significant period of time. Intelligence indicated an individual with the name al-Baghdadi was at a target site, a US official confirmed to CNN. Senior US administration officials were briefed but a raid did not happen because of concern over the potential number of civilians at the site. The US official says they now believe al-Baghdadi was likely not at the location. It remains unclear if that individual was any relation to the Daesh leader.
A consistent problem the US has faced is that intelligence tips on al-Baghdadi’s whereabouts are often not timely, meaning he is likely to have moved on before they are able to mount an operation to take him out. Al-Baghdadi is believed to remain fairly mobile, often moving by vehicle with just a driver one official told CNN. Because he potentially remains on the move, the best chance of killing him might come with last minute intelligence that would require a strike by a drone already loitering nearby.
Over the last several months, the top US commander in Baghdad has given several tantalizing answers to reporters about al-Baghdadi’s whereabouts. In a July 11 press briefing, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend told Pentagon reporters: “I’m unable to confirm or deny where he is or whether he is alive or dead.” Townsend recently departed Iraq after his tour of duty as commander was completed. In his final press conference on August 31, Townsend told reporters “I really don’t know where he is.” He then added “I believe he’s alive? Yes. Why? Because I’ve seen no convincing evidence, intelligence or open source or other — rumor or otherwise, that he’s dead. So, therefore, I believe he’s alive.” Without offering details Townsend also said “there are also some indicators in intelligence channels that he’s still alive.”
Officials say that now Daesh has largely been forced out of Raqqa as well as Mosul, they believe al-Baghdadi is somewhere in the middle Euphrates River Valley, which could put him in the crosshairs of the Syrian regime and Russian aircraft operating in the region. Two administration officials also say that over the last several weeks the CIA assembled specific intelligence that prompted undisclosed drone strike missions carried out by the military mainly in Syria to go after Daesh targets. The CIA declined to comment on the matter. Because of the lack of confirmation about al-Baghdadi’s death, the working assumption by the US is that he still remains alive. Officials say they will continue to pursue him even though they believe that his relevance in the Daesh organization may be diminished as the coalition drives fighters out of its strongholds in Iraq and Syria.
The United States warned a takeover of rebel-held northwestern Idlib province by Syrian jihadists linked to a former al-Qaeda affiliate would have grave consequences and make it difficult to dissuade Russia from renewing bombing that recently stopped. In an online letter posted late on Wednesday, the top State Department official in charge of Syria policy, Michael Ratney, said the recent offensive by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, spearheaded by former al-Qaeda offshoot Jabhat al-Nusra, had cemented its grip on the province and put “the future of northern Syria in big danger”.
“The north of Syria witnessed one of its biggest tragedies,” said Ratney who was behind secret talks in Amman with Moscow over the ceasefire in southwest Syria announced by U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in July. It was the first such U.S.-Russian effort under the Trump administration to end Syria’s civil war. “In the event of the hegemony of Nusra Front on Idlib, it would be difficult for the United States to convince the international parties not to take the necessary military measures,” the top State Department diplomat said. “Everyone should know that al-Julani and his gang are the ones who bear responsibility for the grave consequences that will befall Idlib,” said Ratney, referring to former Jabhat al-Nusra Abu Muhammad al-Julani who effectively leads Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.
In less than three days al-Julani’s fighters overran their powerful rival, the more mainstream Ahrar al-Sham group, seizing control of a strategic border strip with Turkey in some of the heaviest inter-rebel fighting since the start of the conflict. An emboldened Hay’at Tahrir al Sham has sought to allay fears it did not seek to dominate the whole province but suspicions run high among many in the region about their ultimate goals to monopolize power. The jihadists have linked up with Western-backed Free Syria Army (FSA) groups who continue to maintain a foothold in several towns in the province. The south of the region is still in the hands of rival groups, including Ahrar al Sham but the jihadists have been trying to extend their control.
Ratney told rebel groups, who have been forced to work with the jihadists out of expediency or for self preservation, to steer away from the group before it was “too late.” He said Washington would consider any organisation in Idlib province that was a front for the militants a part of al Qaeda’s network.
The expanding influence of the former al-Qaeda has triggered civilian protests across towns in the province with some calling for the group to leave towns and not interfere in how they are run. Al-Nusra and its leaders would remain a target of Washington even if they adopted new names in an attempt to deny Washington and other powers a pretext to attack them, the U.S. official said.
The jihadist sweep across Idlib province has raised concerns that the closure of some crossing points on the border with Turkey could choke off the flow of aid and essential goods. Washington remained committed to delivering aid in channels that avoided them falling into the hands of the hardline jihadists, Ratney said echoing similar concerns by NGO’s and aid bodies after their recent gains. The main border crossing of Bab al Hawa with Turkey which the al Qaeda fighters threatened to take over has however been re-opened with a resumption of aid and goods to the province that has relieved many people.
Three Daesh suicide attacks struck Baghdad on Monday killing at least 45 people and injuring dozens.
The most devastating attack happened Baghdad’s Sadr City as a suicide bomber driving a pickup loaded with explosives struck a bustling market in Sadr City, killing at least 38 people and injuring dozens. The bomb went off in a fruit and vegetable market that was packed with day laborers, a police officer said, adding that another 52 people were wounded. Sadr City is a vast Shiite district in eastern Baghdad that has been repeatedly targeted by Sunni extremists since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
During a press conference with French President Hollande, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said the bomber pretended to be a man seeking to hire day laborers. Once the workers gathered around, he detonated the vehicle.
Daesh claimed the attack in a statement circulated on a militant website often used by the jihadists. Daesh claims the attacks are “a revenge for coalition-Iraqi targeting of health services in Mosul ”. It was the third Daesh-claimed attack in as many days in and around Baghdad, underscoring the lingering threat posed by the group despite a string of setbacks elsewhere in the country over the past year, including in and around the northern city of Mosul.
Shiite militiamen loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand cleric for whose family the neighborhood is named, were seen evacuating bodies in their trucks before ambulances arrived. Dead bodies were scattered across the bloody pavement alongside fruit, vegetables and laborers’ shovels and axes. A minibus filled with dead passengers was on fire.
Asaad Hashim, an owner of a mobile phone store nearby, described how the laborers pushed and shoved around the bomber’s vehicle, trying to get hired. “Then a big boom came, sending them up into the air,” said the 28-year old, who suffered shrapnel wounds to his right hand. He blamed “the most ineffective security forces in the world” for failing to prevent the attack. An angry crowd cursed the government, even after a representative of al-Sadr tried to calm them. Late last month, Iraqi authorities started removing some of the security checkpoints in Baghdad in a bid to ease traffic for the capital’s 6 million residents. “We have no idea who will kill at any moment and who’s supposed to protect us,” said Ali Abbas, a 40-year old father of four who was hurled over his vegetable stand by the blast. “If the securities forces can’t protect us, then allow us to do the job,” he added.
Three other attacks claim at least seven dead
Three other bombings elsewhere in the city on Monday killed another seven civilians and wounded at least 30, according to medics and police officials. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters.
Two blasts struck central Baghdad on the same day, killing at least five and wounding five others, while another blast near a hospital in Sadr City killed two and wounded four others.
Daesh took responsibility for all four bomb attacks.
Daesh attacked an Iraqi police checkpoint near the southern city of Najaf on Sunday, killing seven policemen as government forces in the north made more gains against the militants in Mosul, their last major stronghold in the country.
The attack near Najaf, 500 km (310 mile) south of Mosul, happened when two vehicles traveling through the desert were stopped at a police checkpoint around al-Qadisiyah town, local police sources said. The driver detonated an explosive load and the second vehicle fled. Police pursued it and killed the two militants inside.
In a statement distributed online by supporters, Daesh claimed responsibility for the attack, which also wounded 17 people including civilians. It said four gunmen had opened fire before detonating explosive vests and then a fifth assailant launched a suicide car bomb.