Twin Suicide Bombings In Baghdad Market Kill At Least 32, Wound Over 100

Jan 21, 2021
Originally published on January 22, 2021 2:43 pm

Updated at 6:56 p.m. ET

Twin suicide bombings at a Baghdad market killed at least 32 people and injured 110 others on Thursday, according to Iraq's health ministry. Of the injured, 36 are being treated in hospitals.

ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attacks, according to the SITE Intelligence Group.

Two suicide bombers detonated their vests when security forces pursued them through a busy market off Tayaran Square. Witnesses said the first cried out he was ill, causing a crowd to form around him in a street off the main square. He then detonated the bomb he wore.

The first attack occurred around 10 a.m. local time, a fruit vendor, Abbas Abdulkareem, told NPR.

People fled toward Tayaran Square, Abdulkareem said. Police and an ambulance arrived. Then the second bomber detonated next to the ambulance as people gathered near the dead and wounded from the first blast.

This explosion killed dozens of people, including vendors, who sold items such as old bluejeans, tea and cellphone accessories.

People gathered Thursday evening at the site of the bombing, murmuring prayers and forming a makeshift vigil. The glow of candles illuminated piles of secondhand clothes in market stalls, some bloodied from the attack.

"We were shocked," Abdulkareem said, "because for some time there have been no explosions. The situation was safe, and people were optimistic."

This type of attack, once horribly common in the Iraqi capital, has become rare since the Islamic State group was largely defeated in the country in 2017. The last took place in January 2018, according to The Associated Press.

Across Baghdad, blast walls and checkpoints had been removed.

Maj. Gen. Tahsin al-Khafaji, a Joint Operations Command spokesman, said it was a "terrorist act perpetrated by a sleeper cell of the Islamic State," according to the AP.

"This attack is a reprehensible act of cowardice that underscores the dangers of terrorism that millions of Iraqis continue to face," the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad wrote in a statement. "We extend our condolences to the families of these victims, and hope for the swift recovery for those who were injured."

Although ISIS has been greatly weakened, with the help of Iraq's international allies, militant groups still conduct operations. Earlier this week, the electricity ministry reported coordinated attacks on power lines, power stations and other infrastructure, causing millions of dollars' worth of damage to the already-shaky electricity sector.

Renad Mansour, an analyst with British think tank Chatham House, told NPR that although ISIS may have been defeated on the battlefield, that doesn't rule out a renewed insurgency.

Mansour said the roots of ISIS lie in the fact that a large part of the population feels disenfranchised.

The terror group is Sunni Muslim, and has long drawn support from some of Iraq's Sunni minority who feel deeply discriminated against by a Shiite-led government.

Without a political settlement and an effort at inclusion, the conflict could continue to be cyclical, Mansour said.

The Trump administration reduced troop numbers in Iraq, but about 2,500 U.S. soldiers remain in the country. Retired Gen. Lloyd Austin, President Biden's defense secretary nominee, said in his confirmation hearing that he remains concerned about the threat ISIS poses inside Iraq and beyond.

"I support maintaining a small number of U.S. troops to carry out a limited mission focused on advising and assisting Iraqi counterterrorism forces to deal with the continuing threat from ISIS," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee in written testimony.

Iraq analyst and Baghdad resident Hamzeh Hadad said the attack was shocking because the overall security situation in the Iraqi capital has improved dramatically in recent years. Fewer checkpoints and blast walls mean "you're slowly seeing the beauty of the city come back to life," he said. "Things are busier again, markets are bustling."

Hadad moved from Canada back to Iraq in 2019, partly because the danger of such attacks appeared to have been reduced.

"So to have something like this reoccur — that hasn't happened in a few years — is really shocking and worrying for everyday Iraqis," he said.

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NOEL KING, HOST:

More than 30 people are dead after a double suicide bombing in a busy market in Baghdad. Footage from the scene shows people running away through secondhand clothes stalls. This kind of attack, thankfully, is rare these days in Iraq. NPR's Alice Fordham is in Baghdad.

Hi, Alice.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Hello.

KING: What do we know about what happened?

FORDHAM: Well, security officials say that two people wearing suicide vests were being chased through a market in downtown Baghdad, a place called Tayaran Square, and that one of them then detonated his vest, apparently killing several people. And then a second one struck, targeting the people who had come to help. It's a beautiful day in Baghdad. This happened mid-morning. The market was packed. The death toll has been rising all day. I spoke to a medic from Medecins Sans Frontieres, the charity, who said she was actually in the hospital helping with the COVID-19 response. She walked past the emergency department and said she realized there was a mass casualty and that she spent all morning triaging patients in the lobby of their hospital, basically.

KING: How unusual is this type of suicide bombing in Iraq these days?

FORDHAM: Well, this is the thing. The doctor was telling me her Iraqi colleagues were very efficient at triaging because this sort of thing used to happen with, you know, really horrifying regularity. But these days, this is really a shock. These kinds of attacks slowed to a trickle when ISIS was largely defeated several years ago. And just being out and about in Baghdad now, it feels very alive. I spoke today with Iraq analyst and Baghdad resident Hamzeh Hadad, and he came back to live here in 2019 from Canada, partly because of the improved security.

HAMZEH HADAD: With security improving, you're seeing less checkpoints. You're seeing T-walls coming down. Slowly but surely, you're seeing the beauty of the city come back to life. Things are busier again. Markets are bustling. So to have something like this reoccur that hasn't happened in a few years is really shocking and worrying for everyday Iraqis and everyday Baghdadis.

KING: And could it be a sign that ISIS is not largely defeated as we've believed?

FORDHAM: Well, we can't really say based on one incident. Certainly, people like Hamzeh Hadad very much hoping that this is isolated. And we should say that as of now, no one has claimed responsibility for this. But although attacks in the capital aren't as common as they were, there are reminders all over Iraq that ISIS and other militant groups are active. You know, earlier this week, there were coordinated attacks on the very ramshackle electricity infrastructure across the country. Power cables were struck and power stations with bombs. And reports suggested that those were likely connected with ISIS or sort of sympathetic groups.

KING: From the perspective of the U.S., President Joe Biden has just taken office. What do we know about his Iraq policy?

FORDHAM: Well, the United States is still a factor in security here in Iraq. Although the Trump administration did withdraw troops from Iraq, there are still about 2,500 American soldiers here working with Iraqi security forces. And the incoming defense secretary, General Lloyd Austin, in written testimony as part of his confirmation process, says that he is still concerned about the threat ISIS poses in Iraq and beyond and said that he supported maintaining a small number of U.S. troops and that their mission is really to strengthen Iraqi counterterrorism forces and deal with the continuing threat from ISIS. And I think that many regular Iraqis and politicians I've spoken to do support that continuing help.

KING: Thanks, Alice.

FORDHAM: Thank you.

KING: NPR's Alice Fordham in Baghdad.

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