A car bomb ripped through a commercial area in a Shi’ite Muslim district of Baghdad on Wednesday, killing at least 63 people and wounding more than 78 others in an attack that was swiftly claimed by the extremist ISIS group.
The attack, which is the largest inside the Iraqi capital since months, took place as a bomb struck a crowded outdoor market in Baghdad’s eastern district of Sadr City, and left many seriously wounded, many of which were women including several brides who appeared to be getting ready for their weddings, the sources said.
The bodies of two men said to be grooms were found in an adjacent barber shop. Wigs, shoes and children’s toys were scattered on the ground outside. At least two cars were destroyed in the explosion, their parts scattered far from the blast site.
Rescue workers stepped through puddles of blood to put out fires and remove victims. Smoke billowed for hours from ground-level stores gutted out by the explosion.
The targeted market is one of the main four outdoor shopping venues in Sadr City, a sprawling slum that is home to about 2.5 million residents — almost half of Baghdad’s population of around 6 million. The open-air markets sell a range of goods, from food to household items, to clothes and other merchandise.
The massive bombing underscored how despite the territorial defeats that ISIS suffered over the past year, the Sunni extremist group is still capable of launching significant attacks across the country. It has also recently stepped up assaults inside Baghdad, something officials say is an attempt to distract from their battlefield losses.
The bombing also comes at a time of a political deadlock that has paralyzed the work of the Iraqi government and parliament, adding to the country’s complex set of military, security, humanitarian, economic and human rights challenges.Shortly after the blast, the Sunni extremist group — which sees Shiite Muslims as apostates — claimed responsibility for the assault. ISIS said the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber, but Iraqi officials denied that. In its online statement, ISIS said it targeted a gathering of Shiite militiamen.
“Politicians are fighting each other in parliament and government while the people are being killed every day,” said Hussein Abdullah, a 28-year old owner of an electrical appliances store who suffered shrapnel wounds.
“If they can’t protect us, then they have to let us do the job,” the father of two added.
Baghdad’s Sadr City is a stranglehold of supporters of influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr who have been holding protests and sit-ins for months to demand an overhaul of the political system put in place by the Unites States following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, the sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shi’ites exacerbated, thus enabling ISIS to seize about a third of Iraq’s territory in 2014.
Wednesday’s attack in Sadr City could also intensify pressure on Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to resolve a political crisis that has crippled the government for more than a month.
Last month, hundreds of al-Sadr’s supporters stormed the heavily fortified Green Zone in the heart of Baghdad and broke into the parliament building.
Delivering a speech before the U.N. Security Council on Friday, the world body’s envoy to Iraq, Jan Kubis, warned that the ongoing political crisis and chaos are only serving the interests of ISIS, urging the political leaders and civil society to work together to resolve the political turmoil.
ISIS also a controls significant areas in northern and western Iraq, including Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul. Commercial and public places in Shiite-dominated neighborhoods are among the most frequent targets for the Sunni militants seeking to undermine Iraqi government efforts to maintain security inside the capital.
In February, ISIS carried out devastating back-to-back market bombings in Sadr City, an attack claimed the lives of at least 73 people.
Meanwhile, Iraq announced on Wednesday its U.S.-backed military campaign against ISIS had retaken around two-thirds of the territory seized by the militants.
“Daesh’s presence in Iraqi cities and provinces has declined. After occupying 40 percent of Iraqi territory, now only 14 percent remains,” government spokesman Saad al-Hadithi said in a televised statement, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS.
Iraq’s military, along with Kurdish peshmerga forces, Shi’ite Muslim militias and Sunni tribal fighters, have recaptured several cities in the past year, including Ramadi, Tikrit and Baiji.
Iraqi officials say they are planning to retake the northern city of Mosul this year.
Iraq’s military opened a new front in March against the militants in the Makhmour area, which it called the first phase of a wider campaign to recapture Mosul, around 60 km (40 miles) further north. Progress has been slow, and to date Iraqi forces have taken just five villages.
Two car bombs targeting civilians in separate Baghdad neighborhoods killed at least 22 people on Wednesday, police source said, following a huge blast in Sadr City claimed by ISIS.
One blast hit the entrance to Kadhimiya, a mostly Shi’ite Muslim district in the northwest of the Iraqi capital, killing 15 and wounding 33 others.
The other bomb went off on a commercial thoroughfare in a predominately Sunni district of western Baghdad, killing seven and wounding 20. The sources said the tolls for both attacks were expected to rise.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the later bombs.