BAGHDAD (AP) — A truck bomb ripped through a popular Baghdad food market in a predominantly Shiite neighborhood early on Thursday morning, killing at least 67 people, police officials said, in one of the deadliest single blasts in the Iraqi capital in years.
The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the explosion, saying it targeted a gathering place of Shiites and vowed more such attacks. The truck hit the Jameela market in the Iraqi capital’s crowded Sadr City neighborhood shortly after dawn, according to two local police officers. They said at least 152 people were wounded at the market, which is the main center for produce and food sales in Baghdad.
Residents of the Shiite community rushed to help the victims, carrying corpses in garbage bags and blankets and sending the wounded to local hospitals in ambulances or personal cars. The blast incinerated much of the market, leaving charred wooden market stalls and scattering fruits and vegetables far around it.
Long after the explosion, fire trucks and ambulances remained at the scene and fire men were dousing the still-smoldering area with water. “On Thursdays the market is especially crowded because people come from the other provinces to stock up on food for the weekend,” one of the officers said. He said the truck that blew up was a refrigeration truck, so it was impossible to distinguish it from other trucks delivering produce to the market.
A minibus driver, Hassan Hamid, said he was driving not far from the area when the force of the explosion threw his vehicle about 10 meters (yards) away and onto the sidewalk. “This is the strongest explosion I’ve ever seen in my life,” said the 37-year old father of three, speaking from his hospital bed where he was being treated for shrapnel injuries. “I saw some cars were thrown into the sky and a fire erupted all over the place.”
Four hospital officials confirmed the casualty figures. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. In a message posted on an IS-affiliated Twitter account, the Islamic State said it detonated a parked explosives-laden truck in order to have the “rejectionists (Shiites) experience the same harm as their bombardments cause to our Muslim people.”
The Sunni militant group, which roughly holds a third of Iraq and neighboring Syria in its self-declared “caliphate,” views Shiite Muslims, as well as other religious minorities, as apostates. It often targets military checkpoints or predominantly Shiite neighborhoods such as Sadr City, with the goal of sending a message to the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. Commercial and public areas are also among the militants’ favorite targets as they seek to undermine the people’s confidence in government efforts to maintain security.
While near-daily attacks are common in the capital, death tolls have rarely reached this level for a single attack in Baghdad since the height of the country’s brutal sectarian bloodletting in 2006 and 2007.
Gyorgy Busztin, the acting chief of the U.N. mission in Iraq, called Thursday’s attack “heinous and cowardly” while the Iraqi parliament’s security committee denounced the bombing, saying it “shows the ugliness and brutality” of the attackers.
Shiite lawmaker Hakim al-Zamili, who heads the committee, reiterated demands for a security review and for improving the country’s intelligence services. Al-Zamili also urged the formation of neighborhood groups that would keep Iraqi forces updated on the local situation and called for the sacking of security officials whose failures may have led to the Sadr City attack. He said this was their “last warning.”
IS had vowed, when it launched its major onslaught across northern Iraq last year, to continue on to Baghdad. But a mobilization of volunteer Shiite fighters deterred any significant attacks on the capital at the time.
The IS has also claimed responsibility for a suicide car bombing Monday at a busy marketplace in Baquba, the capital of eastern Diyala province, which killed 34 people. The militant group also targeted a popular market in Diyala last month, killing more than 115 people in one of the worst-single attacks to tear through the country in a decade.
The Iraqi military launched a large-scale operation last month to retake the western province of Anbar from the Islamic State. A U.S.-led coalition has been reinforcing Iraqi troops in their efforts to claw back territory from the militants for the past year but while security forces successfully managed to recapture Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit in April, operations elsewhere have stalled as government-backed forces struggle to dislodge the militant group from the country’s biggest Sunni strongholds.
Associated Press writer Murtada Faraj in Baghdad contributed to this report.