Bombs Rip Through Baghdad in Grim Reminder of Islamic State’s Might

The Islamic State’s concerted terror campaign against civilians in Baghdad belies U.S. claims that the war on terror is working.

Iraqis look at the damage following a car bomb attack in Sadr City, a Shiite area north of the capital Baghdad, on May 11, 2016.  / AFP / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE        (Photo credit should read
Iraqis look at the damage following a car bomb attack in Sadr City, a Shiite area north of the capital Baghdad, on May 11, 2016. / AFP / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE (Photo credit should read

Iraqi and American officials have for weeks touted successes in pushing back the Islamic State from nearly half of the territory it controls in Iraq. On Wednesday, the Sunni militant group left a bloody imprint on the capital Baghdad as a reminder it’s far from defeated.

As many as 82 people were killed and more than 130 injured by bombs that ripped through three neighborhoods in Baghdad. A rush-hour attack in Shiite-dominated Sadr City left at least 55 dead, including brides and grooms preparing for weddings, in a blast from a grocer’s truck that sent shoes, wigs, and children’s toys to rot among the rubble. The Islamic State quickly claimed responsibility for the blast, and bombs embedded in vehicles and suicide vests have been a hallmark of the extremist group for years, going back to when it was known as al Qaeda in Iraq.

Hours later, in the Kadhimiyah neighborhood, a suicide bomber stormed a security checkpoint near the shrine to a Shiite imam, killing 17. Around the same time, a car bomb detonated in the mostly Sunni district of Jamia’a, killing at least 10.

As Iraqi forces gather steam for new offensives on the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul and in western Anbar province, the Sunni extremists have stepped up attacks on the capital. March and April saw an unprecedented level of bloodshed.

Graph courtesy of Joel Wing.

Graph courtesy of Joel Wing


As in Wednesday’s attacks, civilian residents of Baghdad have borne the brunt of the Islamic State’s brutality; in April, only 21 Shiite militiamen and 38 soldiers were killed compared with 413 civilians, according to analysis of press reports by Joel Wing, an Iraq analyst.

The Islamic State set off eight car bombs in Baghdad in April — more than any single month since last August.

Many have exploded in Sadr City, one of the capital’s poorest areas and a habitual Islamic State target for its near-exclusively Shiite population. The sprawling slum is also a home base for the political movement now headed by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr — the fourth son of the area’s revered namesake, Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Sadiq al-Sadr, who was assassinated by Saddam Hussein’s regime in 1999. The area has since been a hornet’s nest of discontent among its impoverished residents, many of whom rose up in a deadly Shiite militia against Sunni extremists and U.S. forces after the 2003 invasion.

Muqtada al-Sadr, who fled to Iran for religious training in 2008, returned to Iraq in 2011 and has since rebuilt his militia. However, it is only one of several Shiite groups that compete for power in the Iraqi government.

Violence in Iraq has been inextricably linked to the country’s political instability since the 2003 invasion – a vicious cycle that has left international partners unsure, at times, where to try to help first. The U.S. and its 60-plus nation coalition has focused mostly on defeating the Islamic State, a threat that began roaring to Iraq in the months immediately after American troops withdrew in December 2011.

But a long-simmering burst of recent infighting among the country’s Shiite political factions, combined with continued Sunni anger over being largely sidelined from power, risks fueling the Islamic State as it proves anew that Baghdad is failing to keep Iraqis safe.

“We get that the politics of this could be the chink in the armor,” a senior Obama administration official told Foreign Policy after returning two weeks ago from a trip with Vice President Joe Biden to Iraq, where the political instability was a top concern on the agenda.

“We’ve made tremendous progress against ISIL on the ground,” said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “… We’ve been decimating them. But paradoxically, as the threat of ISIL has receded a bit, especially around Baghdad and the some of the areas the Shiites value more, I think it’s actually allowed kind of normal politics to reassert themselves a little bit more.”

This story has been updated. FP Deputy Managing Editor Lara Jakes contributed to this report. 

Photo credit: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

Henry Johnson is a fellow at Foreign Policy. He graduated from Claremont McKenna College with a degree in history and previously wrote for LobeLog. Twitter: @HenryJohnsoon

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