ISIS suicide attack kills dozens of pilgrims in Iraq
LONDON - A suicide bombing killed about 100 Shia pilgrims, most of them Iranians, in the village of Shomali, near Hilla city, about 100km south-east of Baghdad.
The huge truck bomb blast ripped through a petrol station where packed buses returning from the Arbaeen commemoration in Karbala were parked, officials said.
The Islamic State (ISIS), which is fighting to defend its Mosul stronghold in northern Iraq, claimed responsibility for the attack.
The Joint Operations Command in Baghdad issued a statement saying the truck was packed with ammonium nitrate, a chemical compound used in many explosive devices.
Iraq had deployed about 25,000 members of the security forces in and around Karbala, home to the mausoleum of Imam Hussein, to protect the pilgrims from a feared ISIS attack.
Earlier this week, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi visited Karbala, where he lavishly praised the country’s security forces for protecting the pilgrims.
ISIS, which is losing ground in Mosul, has carried out a series of high-profile diversionary attacks since Iraqi forces launched a huge offensive to retake the city on October 17th.
Elite forces are now battling ISIS in the neighbourhood of al-Khadra, in eastern Mosul, seeking to regain momentum in their five-week-old offensive.
The US-led coalition also bombed bridges over the Tigris river that splits Mosul in two, reducing ISIS’s ability to resupply the eastern front.
“It is extraordinarily tough fighting, just brutal, but there is an inevitability to it. The Iraqis are going to beat them,” coalition spokesman Colonel John Dorrian told Agence France-Presse.
ISIS fighters moving in an intricate network of tunnels have used drones, snipers, booby traps and a seemingly endless supply of suicide car bombers in an attempt to stop Iraqi forces.
The Iraqi military estimates there are 5,000 to 6,000 ISIS militants in Mosul facing a 100,000-strong coalition of Iraqi government units, Kurdish peshmerga and Iranian-backed Shia militias known as Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF).
The authorities have not released casualty figures since the start of the offensive.
In the past few days, Iraqi forces have cut off the main supply line running from Mosul to the western border with Syria, where ISIS still controls the city of Raqqa.
The PMF have focused their operations on Tal Afar, a large town still held by ISIS west of Mosul. Iraqi Kurdish and the PMF agreed to coordinate movements after cutting off Mosul from the rest of the territory held by ISIS.
“The joining of these forces greatly reduces the freedom of movement of ISIL insurgents in and out of Mosul,” said Dorrian, using an alternative acronym for ISIS.
Thousands of civilians fled Tal Afar as the PMF closed in on the town, which is mostly populated by ethnic Turkmen. Those fleeing Tal Afar are Sunnis, who are a majority in Nineveh province in and around Mosul. Tal Afar also had a Shia community, which fled in 2014 when ISIS swept through the region.
The International Organisation for Migration said on November 24th that about 76,000 people had been displaced since military operations began on October 17th.
A few of them have returned to their homes in retaken areas, but Iraqi forces have slapped a curfew on neighbourhoods of eastern Mosul under their control.
Those who stay behind in the city — often too scared or unable to leave — are facing both danger and deprivation. Power lines are cut, gas for heating is running low and drinking water is nearly gone.
The only supplies people receive are the occasional bags of bread and packs of bottled water the troops from Iraq’s Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) can bring them.
But with temperatures at night dropping below zero Celsius, the thought of making the perilous journey out of Mosul to one of the sprawling camps for displaced people can be daunting.
For humanitarian agencies, trying to reach people inside the recaptured areas of Mosul is becoming increasingly urgent.
The United Nations says it has been able to deliver food to about 37,000 people, but they are on the very eastern fringe of the city. Aid agencies have urged Iraqi forces to ensure access or open up safe corridors.
The Arab Weekly staff and news agencies.