independent– The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the two deadly suicide bombings at a central Baghdad market which killed at least 32 people and wounded over 100 more on Thursday.
The global jihadist group said the attack targeted “apostate Shiites” in a statement released on an affiliated website that named the bombers as Abu Youssef al-Ansari and Mohammed Arif al-Muhajir. It was the first suicide attack to hit the Iraqi capital in three years and heightened political tensions in the country as it planned early elections, amid a worsening economic crisis.
The blasts ripped through the busy and impoverished market in Tayaran Square in the heart of the city. Officials told The Independent the death toll may rise as several people remain in critical condition.
According to witneses, the first suicide bomber complained of being ill, prompting a crowd to gather around him and then detonated his explosive belt. The second detonated shortly afterwards as people rushed to help the wounded from the first blast.
“This is a terrorist act perpetrated by a sleeper cell of the Islamic State,” Maj. Gen. Tahsin al-Khafaji, spokesman for the Joint Operations Command, said. He added Isis “wanted to prove its existence” after suffering many blows in military operations to root out the militants.
Thursday night crowds reappeared at the site of the deadly attack, carrying the coffins of the deceased and lighting candles in a show of defiance.
Many questioned the timing of the attack, which occurred a day after President Joe Biden was sworn into office. The US-led coalition recently halted combat activities and is gradually drawing down its troop presence in Iraq and Syria, sparking fears of a return of Isis cells.
The US condemned “in the strongest possible terms” the killings saying in a statement that they were “vicious acts of mass murder and a sobering reminder of the terrorism that continues to threaten the lives of innocent Iraqis”.
Pope Francis, who is due to visit Iraq in March, all denounced the bombings as a “senseless act of brutality” and urged Iraqis to keep working to replace violence with fraternity and peace.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appealed to the Iraqi people “to reject any attempts to spread fear and violence aimed at undermining peace, stability and unity”.
He called on the government to ensure “those behind these horrific crimes are swiftly identified and brought to justice”.
Thursday’s twin suicide bombings marked the first in three years to target Baghdad’s bustling commercial district. A suicide bomb attack took place in the same square in 2018 killing 27 people shortly after then-Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi declared victory over Isis.
Suicide bombings were a regular occurrence in the Iraqi capital but had waned after Iraqi forces and the US-led coalition ousted Isis from the territory it held Iraq in 2017. Since then it has been hard for the group to penetrate the capital.
That said there has been a recent spike in attacks by Isis and mostly Shiite militia groups in recent months. The Shia militias have routinely targeted the American presence in Iraq with rocket and mortar attacks, especially the US Embassy in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone.