Mon Jan 2, 2017 | 6:32am EST
Islamic State kills 24 in Baghdad blast, cuts road to Mosul
People look at a burned vehicle at the site of car bomb attack in a busy square at Baghdad’s sprawling Sadr City district, in Iraq January 2, 2017. REUTERS/Ahmed Saad
By Kareem Raheem and Ghazwan Hassan
An Islamic State car bomb killed 24 people in a busy square in Baghdad’s sprawling Sadr City district on Monday, and the militants cut a key road north from the capital to Mosul, their last major stronghold in the country.
An online statement distributed by Amaq news agency, which supports Islamic State, said the ultra-hardline Sunni group had targeted a gathering of Shi’ite Muslims, whom it considers apostates. Sixty-seven people were wounded in the blast.
U.S.-backed Iraqi forces are currently fighting to push Islamic State 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.
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.
"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.
ROAD TO MOSUL
Since the drive to recapture Mosul began on Oct. 17, elite forces have retaken a quarter of the city in the biggest ground operation in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. Abadi has said the group will be driven out of the country by April.
As clashes continued in and around Mosul on Monday, Islamic State also targeted military positions away from the main battlefield, killing at least 16 pro-government fighters and cutting a strategic road linking the city to Baghdad.
Militants attacked an army barracks near Baiji, 180 km (110 miles) north of the capital, killing four soldiers and wounding 12 people, including Sunni tribal fighters, army and police sources said.
They seized weapons there and launched mortars at nearby Shirqat, forcing security forces to impose a curfew and close schools and offices in the town, according to local officials and security sources.
Shirqat mayor Ali Dodah said Islamic State seized three checkpoints on the main road linking Baiji to Shirqat following the attacks. Shelling in Shirqat had killed at least two children, he told Reuters by phone.
In a separate incident, gunmen broke into a village near Udhaim, 90 km (56 miles) north of Baghdad, where they executed nine Sunni tribal fighters with shots to the head, police and medical sources said.
At least three pro-government Shi’ite militia fighters were also killed and seven wounded when militants attacked their position near Udhaim with mortar rounds and machine guns, police sources said.
(Writing by Stephen Kalin and Ahmed Rasheed; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)
Iraq: Suicide bombing kills at least 22 in Baghdad
Police say a suicide bomber blew up an explosives-laden pickup truck in bustling Baghdad market, killing at least 22 people, hours after the arrival of the French President Francois Hollande to the country
Jan. 2, 2017, at 6:10 a.m.
The Associated Press
Photo: Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, left, greets French President Francois Hollande prior to their meeting in Baghdad, Iraq, Monday, Jan. 2, 2017. Hollande is in Iraq for a one-day visit. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena, Pool) The Associated Press
By SINAN SALAHEDDIN,
BAGHDAD (AP) — A suicide bomber blew up his explosives-laden vehicle Monday in a bustling market area in Baghdad, killing at least 22 people, Iraqi officials said, hours after the arrival of French President Francois Hollande to the country and amid a fierce fight against the Islamic State group.
The bomber driving a pickup truck attacked an outdoor fruit and vegetable market, day laborers and a police checkpoint in Baghdad’s eastern Sadr City district, a police officer said. Up to 35 other people were wounded in that attack, he said, adding that the death toll was expected to rise.
Two medical officials confirmed the casualty figures. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to release information.
In an online statement, the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it targeted Shiites. The Associated Press could not verify the authenticity of the statements, but they were posted on a militant website commonly used by the extremists. The group also claimed responsibility for Saturday’s suicide attack in a central Baghdad market, which killed at least 28 people, and Sunday’s suicide bombing at a checkpoint south of Baghdad that killed at least nine people.
Late last month, Iraqi authorities started removing some of the security checkpoints in Baghdad, mainly on its eastern side, in a bid to ease traffic for the capital’s approximately 6 million residents.
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 laborers gathered around, he detonated the vehicle. Al-Abadi warned that the "terrorists will further try to hit civilians to make up for the losses," they have suffered on the battlefield.
"We are determined to annihilate terrorism and we are able to shorten its age," he said, calling on security forces and civilians to remain vigilant.
Hollande, during his one-day visit, met with al-Abadi and President Fuad Masum. He was scheduled later to travel to the country’s self-governing northern Kurdish region to meet French troops and local officials.
Iraqi troops, backed by a U.S.-led coalition, are fighting IS in a massive operation to retake the northern city of Mosul. Iraqi state TV said Hollande will discuss "increasing support to Iraq and the latest developments in the fight against Daesh," the Arabic acronym for IS.
In quotes published by the Elysee official Twitter account, 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."
France is part of the U.S.-led international coalition formed in late 2014 to fight IS after the extremist group seized large areas in Iraq and neighboring Syria and declared an Islamic "caliphate." France has suffered multiple terrorist attacks claimed by IS.
Hollande, on Twitter, said Iraq was in a precarious position two years ago, when IS made its blitz. But now the tide has turned. "The results are there: Daesh is in retreat and the battle of Mosul is engaged."
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, bad weather and thousands of civilians trapped in their houses.
In an interview with The Associated Press on Sunday, the senior U.S. military commander, Brig. Gen. Rick Uribe, praised the Iraqi forces fighting mainly on the eastern side of the city, saying they were "at their peak." Uribe agreed with al-Abadi’s assessment that it would take another three months to liberate Mosul.
He predicted the troops would face a different fight when they cross to the west bank of the Tigris River, saying it will mostly be a "dismounted" battle fought in part on narrow streets, some of which were not wide enough for a vehicle to pass.
Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city is located about 360 kilometers (225 miles) northwest of Baghdad. While the Syrian city of Raqqa is considered the caliphate’s de facto capital, Mosul is the largest city under its control. It is the last major IS urban stronghold in Iraq.
Associated Press writers Murtada Faraj in Baghdad and Lori Hinnant in Paris contributed to this report.