A suicide bomber driving a pickup loaded with explosives struck a sprawling market in Baghdad on Monday, killing at least 36 people in an attack claimed by the ISIS group hours after French President Francois Hollande arrived in the Iraqi capital.
The bomb went off in a fruit and vegetable market that was packed with day laborers, a police officer said, adding that another 61 people were wounded.
During a press conference with Hollande, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said the bomber pretended to be a man seeking to hire day laborers. Once the workers gathered around, he detonated the vehicle.
Asaad Hashim, an owner of a mobile phone store nearby, described how the laborers 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.
ISIS claimed the attack in a statement circulated on Amaq news agency, a militant website often used by the extremists. It was the third ISIS-claimed attack in as many days in and around Baghdad, underscoring the lingering threat posed by the group despite a string of setbacks elsewhere in the country over the past year, including in and around the northern city of Mosul.
U.S.-backed Iraqi forces are currently fighting to push ISIS from the northern city of Mosul, but are facing fierce resistance. The group has lost most of the territory it seized in a blitz across northern and western Iraq in 2014.
The recapture of Mosul would probably spell the end for its self-styled caliphate, but the militants would still be capable of fighting a guerrilla-style insurgency in Iraq, and plotting or inspiring attacks on the West.
The attack took place in Sadr City, a vast Shiite district in eastern Baghdad that has been repeatedly targeted by Sunni extremists since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
“The terrorists will attempt to attack civilians in order to make up for their losses, but we assure the Iraqi people and the world that we are able to end terrorism and shorten its life,” Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi told reporters after meeting with visiting French President Francois Hollande.
Three bombs killed 29 people across the capital on Saturday, and an attack near the southern city of Najaf on Sunday left seven policemen dead. Monday’s blast in Sadr City hit a square where day laborers typically gather.
Nine of the victims were women in a passing minibus. Their charred bodies were visible inside the burnt-out remains of the vehicle. Blood stained the ground nearby.
A separate blast near a hospital in central Baghdad killed one civilian and wounded nine, police and medical sources said.
After meeting with Abadi and President Fuad Masum, Hollande was expected to travel to the self-governing northern Kurdish region to meet French troops and local officials.
Iraqi state TV said Hollande will discuss increasing support for Iraq and the latest developments in the 10-week-old offensive to regain Mosul.
Hollande promised that France would remain a long-term ally of Iraq and called for coordination between intelligence services “in a spirit of great responsibility,” in remarks carried by his official Twitter account.
France is part of the American-led coalition formed in 2014 to fight ISIS after the extremist group seized large areas in Iraq and neighboring Syria. France has suffered multiple attacks claimed by the extremist group.
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 and bad weather.
Mosul is Iraq’s second largest city and the last major urban area in the country controlled by IS. Iraqi and U.S. commanders hope to drive IS from the city in the next three months.