175 killed in one of the worst bombings Iraq has seen in years

Iraqi women walk past a damaged building at the site of a suicide car bombing in Baghdad's central Karada district.

Iraqi women walk past a damaged building at the site of a suicide car bombing in Baghdad’s central Karada district.

(AFP/Getty Images)

It was some time after midnight Sunday when a refrigerator van packed with explosives lumbered down the posh Karada thoroughfare in the heart of Baghdad. It came to a stop in front of a popular restaurant filled with people sitting down to a late-night meal. That’s when it blew up, tearing through the night and turning the neighborhood into an inferno. At least 175 people were killed and scores wounded in the blast, Iraqi officials said, making it one of the worst bombings the country has seen over the past 13 years of war.

The area is filled with stores that stay open into the night during Ramadan, and the area had been crowded with shoppers. The blast gutted the al Hadi Center, a building with several clothing stores. Pictures and videos uploaded after the explosion depict scenes of bedlam. Huge fires engulfed buildings, sending clouds of black smoke into the night sky. People could be heard shouting orders as they tried to aid the wounded.

As news of the attack spread, desperate friends and family members flooded community Facebook pages and other social media with messages appealing for information about the whereabouts of their loved ones. Photos of the dead and missing began to circulate. One of a man with sunglasses and his hair coiffed backwards. Another whose shy smile was emphasized by a wisp of pre-pubescent mustache. Some were hastily cropped from images taken in gatherings and parties past.

The attack was claimed by Islamic State, and serves as a cruel reminder of the group’s ability to fight even as it loses ground in Iraq and Syria. The group vowed more attacks in a statement Sunday.  “God permitting, the raids of the mujahideen on the polytheist [Shiites] will not stop,” it read. Members of Islamic State, who are Sunni Muslims and espouse a strict version of sharia, or Islamic law,  believe Shiites must be killed.

As the day wore on, crowds were still trying to extricate burned bodies from the wreckage.

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“I came in the morning to Karada. I’m still here at 6 p.m. and a corpse was just taken out now,” said Iraqi screenwriter Hamed Maliki in a video posted on his Facebook page, his voice choking as he spoke. 

“It’s painful to look at the families waiting…. All of them are crying and hope that the corpse that is coming out is not a relative of theirs.”

Many of the victims were women and children shopping in the run up to the Eid holiday, Maliki said, which marks the end of Ramadan. 

“All this, why did it happen? For what? For religion? This is religion? We are living in a city that is a battlefield,” he said.

His words echoed the rage felt by many Iraqis at the government’s inability to stop suicide attacks in the capital. When Iraqi Prime Minister Haider  Abadi visited the scene of the explosion, he was met by infuriated crowds shouting curses at him. As his convoy beat a hasty retreat through Karada, men ripped tiles from sidewalks and hurled them at the passing cars.

Later Sunday, Abadi declared three days of mourning. He also issued a statement on his official Facebook page saying he “understood the emotions of excitement and the behavior that occurred in the moment of sadness and anger.” 

But many were unconvinced, especially in the wake of a successful offensive on the city of Fallujah,  35 miles west of the capital and recently taken from Islamic State. Officials had claimed the city, which was under the extremist group’s control for more than two years, was a springboard for car bomb attacks in Baghdad.

Islamic State still holds sway over swaths of territory in Iraq’s north and west. Even in areas it has lost to pro-government forces, it has continued to mount operations, usually suicide bombers in cars or with explosives belts. 

Observers say that Baghdad itself can never be completely secured, because of a large number of unmarked roads and dirt tracks in the Baghdad Belt, a Sunni-dominated area with large tracts of agricultural land. 

Activists also called for a demonstration to be held in Karada on Sunday night to protest against the use of the “wands,” bomb detectors that are a ubiquitous sight in the hands of Baghdad’s security forces. 

The detectors, plastic boxes the size of a small radio with an antenna attached, were purchased by the Iraqi government from a discredited British businessman named James McCormick. Originally used to detect golf balls, the boxes were sold to Iraq by McCormick as bomb detectors for tens of millions of dollars.

 In 2013, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison by a British court for perpetrating a “callous confidence trick,” according to the BBC.

Other Iraqis posted tributes for the dead, including one for Adel Jaf, a self-taught performer and activist.

Jaf had survived a previous Islamic State attack in Karada in May of last year. At the time, he wrote, “I am still alive. I still dance. I was very close with the explosion but I’m not dead because there was a wall to protect me.”

Iraqi activist Zaid al Fetlawy tweeted a picture of Jaf in a tuxedo.

“We will follow you soon, Adel. Sleep well,” he wrote.

Bulos is a special correspondent. The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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July 5, 7:18 a.m.: This article was updated with a new death toll.

July 4, 10:35 a.m.: This article was updated with the newest death toll.

July 4, 9:30 a.m.: This article was updated with the latest death toll.

This article was originally published on July 3 at 2:30 p.m.