Baghdad — Twin suicide bombings ripped through a busy market in the Iraqi capital Thursday, killing at least 32 people and wounding more than 100, officials said. The rare suicide attack hit the Bab al-Sharqi commercial area in central Baghdad amid heightened political tensions over planned early elections and a severe economic crisis.
Blood smeared the floors of the busy market amid piles of clothes and shoes as survivors took stock of the disarray in the aftermath.
No one immediately took responsibility for the attack, but Iraqi military officials said it was the work of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria ( ).
Iraq's Health Ministry said at least 32 people were killed and more than 110 wounded in the attack. Some of the wounded were in serious condition. Several health and police officials said the toll might be higher. They spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
The Health Ministry announced that all of its hospitals in the capital were mobilized to treat the wounded.
Maj. Gen. Tahsin al-Khafaji, spokesman for the Joint Operations Command, which includes an array of Iraqi forces, said the first suicide bomber cried out loudly that he was ill in the middle of the bustling market, prompting a crowd to gather around him - and that's when he detonated his explosive belt. The second detonated his belt shortly after, he said.
"This is a terrorist act perpetrated by a sleeper cell of the Islamic State," al-Khafaji said. He said ISIS "wanted to prove its existence" after suffering many blows in military operations to root out the militants.
The suicide bombings marked the first in three years to target Baghdad's bustling commercial area. A suicide bomb attack took place in the same area in 2018 shortly after then-Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi .
Iraq has seen assaults perpetrated by both ISIS and various militia groups in recent months, including Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim groups that have routinely targeted American forces with rocket and mortar attacks, especially the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone.
The pace of those attacks, however, has decreased since an informal truce was declared by Iranian-backed groups in October.
The style of Thursday's assault was similar to those ISIS has conducted in the past. But the group has rarely been able to penetrate the capital since being dislodged by Iraqi forces and the U.S.-led coalition in 2017.
ISIS has shown an ability to stage increasingly sophisticated attacks across northern Iraq, however, where it still maintains a presence three years after Iraq declared victory over the insurgency.
Iraqi security forces are frequently ambushed and targeted with IEDs in rural areas of Kirkuk and Diyala. An increase in attacks was seen last summer as militants took advantage of the government's focus on tackling the coronavirus pandemic.
A statement released by the Vatican said Pope Francis was "deeply saddened to learn of the bomb attacks," which he considered a "senseless act of brutality," and added that he was praying the victims and their families.
The twin bombings on Thursday came days after Iraq's government unanimously agreed to hold early elections in October. Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi had announced in July that early polls would be held to meet the demands of anti-government protesters.
Demonstrators took to the streets in the tens of thousands last year to demand political change and an end to rampant corruption and poor services. More than 500 people were killed in mass demonstrations as security forces used live rounds and tear gas to disperse crowds.
Iraq is also grappling with a severe economic crisis, brought on by low oil prices amid the pandemic, that has led the government to borrow internally and risk depleting its foreign currency reserves. The Central Bank of Iraq devalued Iraq's dinar by nearly 20% last year to meet spending obligations.
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