Baghdad bombing death toll rises to 175, sparking new security measures

The death toll from a suicide bombing in a Baghdad shopping district rose above 175 on Monday, fuelling calls for security forces to crack down on ISIS sleeper cells blamed for one of the worst-ever single bombings in Iraq.

Iraqis want crackdown on 'sleeper cells' after deadly attack in busy shopping district

A woman reacts at the site after a suicide car bomb attack at the shopping area of Karrada, a largely Shia district of Baghdad. (Ahmed Saad/Reuters)

The death toll from a suicide bombing in a Baghdad shopping district rose above 175 on Monday, fuelling calls for security forces to crack down on ISIS sleeper cells blamed for one of the worst-ever single bombings in Iraq. 

Numbers rose as bodies were recovered from the rubble in the Karrada area of Baghdad, where a refrigerator truck packed with explosives blew up on Saturday night when people were out celebrating the holy month of Ramadan. 

By Monday evening, the toll in Karrada stood at 175 killed and 200 wounded, according to police and medical sources. Rescuers and families were still looking for 37 missing people. 

ISIS claimed the bombing, its deadliest in Iraq, saying it was a suicide attack.

Jumping for their lives

On Monday, Furat al Jamil — an Iraqi filmmaker — visited the scene of theattack. She spoke with CBC's As it Happens' guest host Susan Bonner about what she saw.

"There were a lot of people in the street," she said. "Some people were demonstrating. Others were crying. Others were sifting through the rubble looking for loved ones."

Some survivors told al Jamil about how they were able to escape one of the burning buildings. One shopkeeper told her how he, along with a group of men, escaped by kicking a hole in the wall. Others were able to get to the roof.

"They jumped from the roof, which is rather high from a three storey building," she said. "They broke their legs."

Another explosion struck the same night, when a roadside bomb blew up in popular market of al-Shaab, a Shia district in north Baghdad, killing two people.

The attacks showed Islamic State can still strike in the heart of the Iraqi capital despite recent military losses, undermining Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's declaration of victory last month when Iraqi forces dislodged the hardline Sunni insurgents from the nearby city of Falluja.

Abadi's Shia-led government ordered the offensive on Falluja in May after a series of deadly bombings in Shia areas of Baghdad that it said originated from the Sunni Muslim city, about 50 kilometres west of the capital.

Falluja was the first Iraqi city captured by Islamic State in 2014, six months before it declared a caliphate over parts of Iraq and Syria. Since last year the insurgents have been losing ground to U.S.-backed Iraqi government forces and Iranian-backed Shia militias.

"Abadi has to have a meeting with the heads of national security, intelligence, the interior ministry and all sides responsible for security and ask them just one question: How can we infiltrate these groups?" said Abdul Kareem Khalaf, a former police Major General who advises the Netherlands-based European Centre for Counterterrorism and Intelligence Studies think tank.

He said ISIS, "has supporters or members everywhere  — in Baghdad, Basra and Kurdistan. All it takes is for one house to have at least one man and you have a planning base and launch site for attacks of this type."

Problems with bomb detectors

In a sign of public outrage at the failure of the security services, Abadi was given an angry reception on Sunday when he toured Karrada, the district where he grew up, with residents throwing stones, empty buckets and even slippers at his convoy in gestures of contempt.

He ordered new measures to protect Baghdad, starting with the withdrawal of fake bomb detectors that police have continued to use despite a scandal that broke out in 2011 about their sale to Iraq under his predecessor, Nuri al-Maliki.

The hand-held devices were initially developed to find lost golf balls, and the British businessman who sold them to Iraq for $40 million was jailed in Britain in 2013.

Abadi ordered that the fake devices be replaced by efficient detectors at the entrances to Baghdad and Iraq's provinces.

5 executed

Later on Monday, the justice ministry announced in a statement that five people convicted of terrorism and sentenced to death were executed on Monday morning, bringing the total number of those executed on the same charges to 37 in the past two months.

"We refuse categorically all political or international interventions to stop the death sentence under the cover of human rights; Iraqi blood is above all slogans," it said, linking the timing of the executions to the Karrada bombing.

Iraqi intelligence services also announced on Monday the arrest of 40 "terrorists" suspected of forming a group to carry out attacks in Baghdad and the eastern Diyala province.  

Mourners react during a funeral of a victim who was killed in a suicide car bomb in the Karrada shopping area in Baghdad. (Alaa Al-Marjani/Reuters)

Karrada, a largely Shia district with a small Christian community and a few Sunni mosques, was busy at the time of the blast as people were eating out and shopping late during Ramadan, which ends this week with the Eid al-Fitr festival.

As Iraq started observing three days of national mourning, rescuers continued digging through the rubble of a shopping mall believed to be the main target of the bombing, searching for bodies or possible survivors.

Three bodies were pulled out in the morning from the basement of the three-story Al-Laith mall, which was reduced to a skeleton of charred steel and concrete by the blast. Its glass facades were blown out and its internal divider walls collapsed. Dozens of people gathered outside, many of them friends or relatives of missing.

With files from CBC News