People look for their loved ones in front of the al-Khayrat Mosque after a suicide bomber blew himself up among Shiite worshippers after midday prayers in a commercial area in the city centre of Baghdad, Iraq. (Photo: AP/Khalid Mohammed)
BAGHDAD — Militants unleashed a flurry of deadly attacks against Shiite targets in Iraq on Monday, including a quadruple car bombing near two of the holiest shrines in Shiite Islam and a suicide attack inside a mosque, officials said.
The four car bombs were detonated in Karbala on the periphery of a pedestrian-only area encircling the shrines of Imam Hussein and Abbas, killing 22 and wounding 51, officials said.
Those attacks roughly coincided with a symbolically important meeting in Najaf, another holy Shiite city in southern Iraq, between Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s top Shiite cleric. The meeting was widely viewed as a demonstration of support for Mr. Abadi. Ayatollah Sistani had not met with Mr. Abadi’s predecessor, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, for the last few years, which was interpreted by many as a sign of dissatisfaction with the administration.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks in Karbala, but suspicion fell most heavily on the Sunni-led Islamic State, which has deployed car bombs and suicide bombers with increasing frequency in recent weeks, most often targeting Shiite neighborhoods.
Two of the cars were in parking lots where worshipers leave their vehicles before walking to the shrines, officials said. The other two were detonated along busy commercial streets, officials said.
Nusaif Jassim, head of the Karbala provincial council, said the attacks were “a response to the progress” of Iraqi security forces in pushing back the Islamic State in the area around Jurf al-Sakhr, a town strategically located on a corridor between Karbala and militant strongholds in Anbar Province.
The Islamic State has been able to gather support among some Sunnis in part by playing on widespread Sunni mistrust of the Shiite-led government. Mr. Abadi took office last month on the promise that he would reach out to disaffected Sunni populations.
Mr. Abadi said at a news conference after his meeting with Ayatollah Sistani that the cleric spoke about “being more open to others, national unity, and chasing corruption and the corrupted as well as providing the best services to the Iraqi people.”
In Baghdad, a man shot and killed a guard standing outside a small Shiite mosque crowded with worshipers during midday prayer, forced his way through the door and shot and killed the imam and a worshiper, witnesses and the authorities said. Then the man detonated an explosives belt concealed beneath his oversize shirt, killing another 15 and wounding 33, the authorizes said.
Haider Ali Hussein, a porter at a nearby utilities shop, said that for security reasons, the mosque was reserved for people from the neighborhood, Sinak. The guard had tried to block the bomber’s entry because he did not recognize him.
“Very good friends of mine, gone in this explosion,” Mr. Hussein said.
The attack was the second against a Shiite mosque in Baghdad this week. On Sunday, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives vest outside a Shiite mosque in the Harthiya neighborhood of western Baghdad, killing 18 people and wounding 35, the authorities said. Two roadside bombs in the capital on Sunday killed another 8 and wounded 12, officials said.
As the Islamic State has tried to press closer to Baghdad, Iraqi and American officials have insisted that the capital is well protected from a siege and that the most the militants could hope to do was sow fear and death with bombings.
But on Monday, residents of the capital were reminded that mortal threats abound in the city beyond those posed by the Islamic State, especially amid the growth of government-supported militias and the proliferation of weapons.
Shortly after midnight, a protracted firefight between a federal police unit and another armed group erupted along a darkened and otherwise empty boulevard of the Karrada neighborhood, Interior Ministry officials said. The shootout, involving assault rifles and heavy machine guns, lasted at least 20 minutes though remarkably, officials said, only two police officers were wounded.
Saad Maan, the spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said in an interview that the police had converged on a hotel where “a gang” was holding a kidnap victim. The woman, the relative of a prominent Kurdish politician, had been kidnapped in Basra about two weeks ago and her captors were demanding a $2.5 million ransom, officials said.
The woman escaped her captors during the shootout, Mr. Maan said, yet there were no arrests in the case and it still remained unclear late Monday which group was responsible.
Some government officials initially suspected the kidnapping was the work of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a powerful Iranian-backed militia that is fighting the Islamic State alongside government forces. But investigators now believe the kidnappers were a gang of ordinary criminals, Mr. Maan said. Leaders of the militia did not return phone calls seeking comment.
“From now on we will have more discipline on the street,” Mr. Maan said. The new interior minister, Mohammed Salem al-Ghabban, has vowed “to control the street,” the spokesman said.
Meanwhile, military officials reported clashes between government forces and the Islamic State around the country. In northern Iraq, a militant driving a truck loaded with explosives drew close to a Kurdish pesh merga building in a village near the Mosul Dam and detonated his cargo, killing 15 soldiers and wounding more than 25, said a high-ranking pesh merga officer who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to provide information on the record.
It was single deadliest suicide attack ever against the pesh merga, the official said.
In the Qara Taba district in Diyala Province, pesh merga forces were fighting on Monday alongside Iraqi government forces, the authorities said. Six militants died in those clashes, as well as one Iraqi police officer and two pesh merga fighters, officials said.
There was also fighting reported outside Tikrit, including in the village of Al Hajaj, north of the city, where government security forces supported by Iraqi aircraft were attacking jihadist militants, officials said.