ISIS strikes in the heart of Baghdad
UTICA (Michigan) - A string of Islamic State (ISIS) suicide attacks in and around Baghdad has killed more than 170 people, sending a message that the heavily fortified Iraqi capital is vulnerable despite battlefield successes against militants by government troops and their allies.
Three car bombs exploded May 15th at the gate of Taji gas plant north of Baghdad. Six suicide bombers entered the complex and destroyed gas tanks. At least 14 people were killed and 20 others wounded.
Two days earlier, suicide car bombers attacked a crowded market in eastern Baghdad and killed 93 people, the deadliest attack in the capital so far in 2016. A day later, a double suicide bomb attack hit a police station in a western suburb of Baghdad and ISIS fighters tried to seize the police post. Five police officers were killed.
ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks, demonstrating it has the ability to strike areas protected by thousands of security forces and Shia militiamen.
The Baghdad bombing blitz was clearly intended to hinder Iraqi troop build-ups around the ISIS-controlled northern city of Mosul and in western areas controlled by the jihadists.
ISIS is under a growing pressure in Iraq and neighbouring Syria, unable to reinforce its Iraq-based contingent from its forces in northern Syria because many routes have been cut off.
Security expert Wathiq al-Hashimi warned that, despite losses suffered by ISIS in recent months, the group poses a threat in Iraq, especially against soft targets.
“By getting closer to Baghdad suburbs, Daesh wants to terrify Baghdadis and to raise the morale of its fighters who are suffering humiliating defeats in Mosul and Anbar provinces,” Hashimi said, using an Arabic acronym for the jihadist group.
ISIS, which controls large parts of western and northern Iraq, has suffered major defeats in recent months at the hands of the Iraqi Army, Shia militias and Kurdish security forces backed by US air strikes.
However, a political struggle between Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has overshadowed the fight against ISIS. Divisions among political factions have prevented the formation of a new cabinet and Abadi has repeatedly warned that the deadlock would negatively affect the war against the militants.
After the May 11th attacks in Sadr City, the US embassy in Iraq warned that the recent spate of attacks “is the latest reminder of the danger this group poses to all Iraqis”. It urged Iraqi leaders to work together “to quickly resolve differences so that the progress made to defeat Daesh continues”.
Securing the capital, however, has not been easy.
After the May 17th attacks against Shia areas in Baghdad, Ali al-Sabti, a spokesman for the powerful Abbas Shia militia, said that 1,000 fully trained and equipped fighters would be deployed in the city to help maintain security.
Jawad al-Telebawi, spokesman for another powerful Shia militia, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, warned of a potential ISIS attack on areas in Baghdad’s southern suburbs soon.
He echoed popular demands that military efforts should be concentrated to retake the ISIS-held city of Falluja, one of the first Sunni-inhabited cities in Iraq to fall to ISIS in January 2014.
“Baghdad will always be in danger if Falluja is not liberated from the Daesh terrorists,” Telebawi said.
Falluja, where locals tell of malnutrition and a shortage of medicine since it was placed under an army siege early this year, is in the vast desert Anbar province in western Iraq, about an hour’s drive west of Baghdad.
Anbar is a stronghold of Sunni Muslim Arab tribes, including officers from the dissolved Iraqi Army under Saddam Hussein. Some tribesmen sided with ISIS to seek revenge from successive Iraqi Shia-dominated governments that ostracised them.
Baghdad resident Ali Hatem said the recent attacks made people more fearful of ISIS and angrier at their political leaders.
“More victims are falling in Baghdad and the enemy is almost at our doorstep, while the politicians are in total oblivion, busy with personal gains and privileges,” Hatem said.