A car bomb ripped through a commercial area in a predominantly Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad on Wednesday, killing at least 63 people and wounding dozens in an attack that was swiftly claimed by the extremist Islamic State group.
The bomb struck a crowded outdoor market in Baghdad's eastern district of Sadr City, and left up to 85 people wounded, several seriously, prompting fears the death toll could rise further, officials said.
It was the latest deadly attack to hit the Iraqi capital—a massive bombing that underscored how despite the territorial defeats the Islamic State suffered over the past year, the Sunni extremist group is still capable of launching significant attacks across the country. It has also recently stepped up assaults inside Baghdad, something officials say is an attempt to distract from their battlefield losses.
The bombing also comes at a time of a political deadlock that has paralyzed the work of the Iraqi government and parliament, adding to the country's complex set of military, security, humanitarian, economic and human rights challenges.
Wednesday's bomb struck a crowded outdoor market in the eastern Sadr City district, two police officials said. Four medical officials confirmed the casualty figures. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to talk to reporters.
The market is one of the main four outdoor shopping venues in Sadr City, a sprawling slum that is home to about 2.5 million residents — almost half of Baghdad's population of around 6 million. The open-air markets sell a range of goods, from food to household items, to clothes and other merchandise.
Ambulances rushed to the scene as dozens of residents walked through twisted and mangled wreckage of cars and other debris that littered the pavement, trying to help the victims. The street was stained red with blood in many places and front-side facades of several buildings were heavily damaged. Smoke billowed from ground-level stores gutted out by the explosion.
Karim Salih, a 45-year old grocer, said the bomb was a pickup truck loaded with fruits and vegetables that was parked by a man who quickly disappeared among the crowds of people.
"It was such a thunderous explosion that jolted the ground," Salih told The Associated Press.
"The force of the explosion threw me for meters (yards) away and I lost conscious for a few minutes," the merchant added. He suffered no injuries, but two of his workers were wounded.
Shortly after the blast, the Sunni extremist group—which sees Shiite Muslims as apostates—said it was behind the assault. IS said the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber, but Iraqi officials denied that. In its online statement, IS said it targeted a gathering of Shiite militiamen. The AP could not immediately verify the authenticity of the claim but it appeared on a website commonly used by the Sunni militants.
"Politicians are fighting each other in parliament and government while the people are being killed every day," said Hussein Abdullah, a 28-year old owner of an electrical appliances store who suffered shrapnel wounds.
"If they can't protect us, then they have to let us do the job," the father of two added.
Baghdad's Sadr City is a stronghold of supporters of influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr who have been holding protests and sit-ins for months to demand an overhaul of the political system put in place by the Unites States following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Last month, hundreds of al-Sadr's supporters stormed the heavily fortified Green Zone in the heart of Baghdad and broke into the parliament building.
Delivering a speech before the U.N. Security Council on Friday, the world body's envoy to Iraq, Jan Kubis, warned that the ongoing political crisis and chaos are only serving the interests of IS, urging the political leaders and civil society to work together to resolve the political turmoil.
IS also a controls significant areas in northern and western Iraq, including Iraq's second-largest city of Mosul. Commercial and public places in Shiite-dominated neighborhoods are among the most frequent targets for the Sunni militants seeking to undermine Iraqi government efforts to maintain security inside the capital.
In February, IS carried out devastating back-to-back market bombings in Sadr City, an attack claimed the lives of at least 73 people.
According to the United Nations, at least 741 Iraqis were killed in April due to ongoing violence. The U.N. mission to Iraq put the number of civilians killed at 410, while the rest it said were members of the security forces. A total of 1,374 Iraqis were wounded that month, UNAMI said.
In March, at least 1,119 people were killed and 1,561 wounded in the ongoing violence.
Associated Press writer Murtada Faraj in Baghdad contributed to this report.
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