They were shopkeepers and families with children. One was a young man said to be a recent law school graduate. Another had just finished a PhD in microbiology, according to Iraqi reports. They found themselves in a shopping district of Baghdad’s Karada neighborhood early Sunday morning when a suicide bomber detonated a truckload of explosives.
The death toll in the attack rose to at least 175 on Tuesday according to the Associated Press, making it one of the worst single attacks on civilians since the U.S. invasion in 2003. As rescue workers continue to search for bodies in the rubble, the attack raises memories of the darkest days of the sectarian civil war that ravaged Iraq in the years following the 2003 military invasion that toppled dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. The bombing underscores the ongoing nightmare for Iraq as it continues to grapple with political divisions, struggling institutions, and vast threats to its security.
Islamic State militants claimed responsibility for this weekend’s bombing, which carried echoes of an earlier age in which ISIS’ parent group, al-Qaeda in Iraq, and its leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, staged a series of indiscriminate attacks intended to provoke civil war. Zarqawi’s tactics were so cruel and indiscriminate that even al-Qaeda’s central leadership disapproved.
The bombing in Karada followed a similar format to previous attacks designed to unleash maximum carnage. A truck packed with explosives detonated on a busy street lined with shops. In claiming the attack, ISIS offered a sectarian motive, saying it targeted Shiite Muslims. The attack shattered an otherwise joyful moment: toward the end of the holy month of Ramadan, a time for giving gifts and staying up late.
“When you see these bombings you are very much reminded of the mid-2000s when Zarqari and his gang, al-Qaeda in Iraq were essentially doing this— this was their style,” says Renad Mansour, a fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “A lot of Iraqis are saying, ‘Oh wow are we back to that again?’”
The bombing in Baghdad comes after pro-government forces reclaimed the city of Fallujah from ISIS last month, expelling the jihadist group from a key stronghold just outside the capital. The battle was another echo from the post-invasion period. In 2004, U.S., British, and Iraqi forces also retook the city from insurgents. It was during those years that the Sunni-dominated insurgency against the U.S.-led occupation metastasized into the sectarian civil war that in turn led to the creation of ISIS.
ISIS set itself apart from other jihadist groups by seizing control of a large area of land in home to hundreds of thousands of people Syria and Iraq. Now, the jihadists are losing on battlefields in both countries and in Libya, but they continue to make their presence felt by killing civilians across the planet. Separate attacks attributed to ISIS in Istanbul and Bangladesh last week underscored the group’s global reach as it endeavors to remain relevant in spite of its shrinking landmass.
Pressure is mounting on the government of Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi to translate military success against ISIS into corresponding improvements in security. After Abadi visited the blast site on Sunday, angry protesters pelted his motorcade with debris. In May, Abadi’s administration was shaken when supporters of the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr stormed Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone and entered the parliament building. The demonstrators denounced corruption and the inability of the state to maintain security amid ongoing ISIS bombings in the capital.
On Sunday, Abadi took steps to increase security, including banning police from using fake bomb detectors known as the “magic wand” at checkpoints. The British businessman who sold the fraudulent devices to Iraq and other countries was sentenced to 20 years in prison in the UK in 2013, but according to Reuters, some of the devices remained in use years after the scandal became public.
Part of the challenge facing the Iraqi authorities is that ISIS relies on suicide bombers, often in cars or trucks, a tactic that is both extremely deadly and difficult to stop once it is in motion. Iraq has already suffered enormously from such attacks. Between 2003 and 2015, there were at least 2,027 suicide attacks in Iraq, killing at least 21,487 people, according to a University of Chicago database. Other databases place number of strikes (including both suicide and other attacks) far higher.
Analysts say ending those attacks in Baghdad will mean locating and apprehending ISIS sleeper cells that are believed to be hiding in the capital. That won’t be an easy task. Iraq’s security apparatus has fractured along political and communal lines, with multiple competing agencies and the rise of controversial, decentralized Shiite-led militias who are deeply involved in the fight against ISIS.
“It’s very much a political problem. Haider al-Abadi is not in a position to coordinate all of the security and intelligence agencies inside the city of Baghdad let alone in the rest of Iraq,” says Mansour.