World

Suicide bombing kills at least 36 at Baghdad market

A suicide bomber blows up his explosives-laden vehicle in a bustling market area in Baghdad, killing at least 36 people, Iraqi officials say, hours after the arrival of French President François Hollande to the country and amid a fierce fight against ISIS.

Iraqi PM says bomber pretended to be seeking to hire day labourers at bustling market

The bomber attacked an outdoor fruit and vegetable market, day labourers and a police checkpoint on Monday, a police officer said. (Ahmed Saad/Reuters)

A suicide bomber blew up his explosives-laden vehicle Monday in a bustling market area in Baghdad, killing at least 36 people, Iraqi officials said, hours after the arrival of French President François Hollande to the country and amid a fierce fight against ISIS.

The bomber driving a pickup truck attacked an outdoor fruit and vegetable market, day labourers and a police checkpoint in Baghdad's eastern Sadr City district, a police officer said. Up to 52 other people were wounded in that attack, he said.

During a news conference with Hollande, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said the bomber pretended to be a man seeking to hire day labourers; once the labourers gathered around, he detonated the vehicle. Al-Abadi warned that the "terrorists will further try to hit civilians to make up for the losses" they have suffered on the battlefield.

"We are determined to annihilate terrorism and we are able to shorten its age," he said, calling on security forces and civilians to remain vigilant.

ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack, in a statement circulated on a militant website often used by the extremists.

It was the third ISIS-claimed attack in as many days in and around Baghdad.

The latest attack took place in Sadr City, a vast Shia district in eastern Baghdad.

Shia militiamen loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand cleric for whose family the neighbourhood is named, were seen loading bodies into their trucks before ambulances arrived. Bodies were scattered across the bloody pavement alongside fruit, vegetables, and labourers' shovels and axes. A minibus filled with dead passengers was on fire.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said the attacker pretended to be looking to hire day labourers. He said that once labourers gathered around, the man detonated a vehicle. (Ahmed Saad/Reuters)

Asaad Hashim, an owner of a mobile phone store nearby, described how the labourers 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 six 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 smaller 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.

Hollande, during his one-day visit, met with al-Abadi and President Fuad Masum. He was scheduled later to travel to the country's self-governing northern Kurdish region to meet French troops and local officials.

Massive operation in Mosul

Iraqi troops, backed by a U.S.-led coalition, are fighting ISIS in a massive operation to retake the northern city of Mosul. Iraqi state TV said Hollande will discuss "increasing support to Iraq and the latest developments in the fight against Daesh," the Arabic acronym for ISIS.

In quotes published by the Elysee official Twitter account, Hollande promised that France would remain a long-term ally of Iraq and called for co-ordination between intelligence services "in a spirit of great responsibility."

French President François Hollande, left, at a news conference with al-Abadi in Baghdad on Monday, will travel to Iraq's self-governing northern Kurdish region to meet French troops and local officials. (Christophe Ena/Associated Press)

France is part of the U.S.-led international coalition formed in late 2014 to fight ISIS after the extremist group seized large areas in Iraq and neighbouring Syria and declared an Islamic "caliphate." France has suffered multiple terrorist attacks claimed by ISIS.

Hollande, on Twitter, said Iraq was in a precarious position two years ago, when ISIS made its blitz. But now the tide has turned. "The results are there: Daesh is in retreat and the battle of Mosul is engaged."

Civilians trapped in Mosul

Since the Mosul operation started on Oct. 17, Iraqi forces have seized around a quarter of the city. Last week, the troops resumed fighting after a two-week lull due to stiff resistance by the militants, bad weather and thousands of civilians trapped in their houses.

In an interview with The Associated Press on Sunday, the senior U.S. military commander, Brig.-Gen. Rick Uribe, praised the Iraqi forces fighting mainly on the eastern side of the city, saying they were "at their peak." Uribe agreed with al-Abadi's assessment that it would take another three months to liberate Mosul.

He predicted the troops would face a different fight when they cross to the west bank of the Tigris River, saying it will mostly be a "dismounted" battle fought in part on narrow streets, some of which were not wide enough for a vehicle to pass.

Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city is located about 360 kilometres northwest of Baghdad. While the Syrian city of Raqqa is considered the group's de facto capital, Mosul is the largest city under its control. It is the last major ISIS urban stronghold in Iraq.