HILLA, IRAQ // // A suicide bombing claimed by ISIL killed at least 70 people on Thursday, most of them Shiite pilgrims from Iran. In the latest attack by extremists as Iraqi forces battle to retake Mosul, a huge blast from a lorry ripped through a petrol station, where buses packed with faithful returning from the Arbaeen commemoration in Karbala were parked.
Most of the victims were Iranians, the largest contingent of foreigners in the pilgrimage, which is one of the world’s largest religious events and culminated on Monday.
The attack took place near a village called Shomali, about 120 kilometres south-east of Baghdad. ISIL, which is fighting to defend its Mosul stronghold in northern Iraq, admitted carrying out the bombing, releasing a statement saying a bomber “blew up his vehicle amid their assembly, inflicting among them more than 200 killed and wounded, including Iranians.”
Falah Al Radhi, head of the provincial security committee for Babylon, the province where the bombing happened, said it had targeted several buses. “A large truck exploded among them. It was a suicide attack,” he said. Fewer than ten of the dead were Iraqis, he added.
Videos circulating on social media showed debris scattered over a large area along the main motorway linking Baghdad to the main southern port city of Basra.
“There are completely charred corpses at the scene,” said Mr Radhi.
The Joint Operations Command in Baghdad said the lorry was packed with 500 litres of ammonium nitrate, a chemical compound used in many explosive devices.
Up to 20 million people visited Karbala, home to the mausoleum of Imam Hussein, for Arbaeen this year. About three million of them were Iranians. The Iraqi security forces had deployed about 25,000 personnel in and around the shrine city, which lies south-west of Baghdad, to protect the pilgrims from a feared attack by ISIL which has carried out numerous high-profile diversionary attacks since the Iraqi offensive to take Mosul began last month..
On Thursday, elite forces battled ISIL militants in eastern Mosul, driving them out of three neighbourhoods in fierce street-to-street fighting. Maan Al Saadi, a commander with the Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) fighting ISIL in the Al Khadraa district said of the extremists, “They cannot flee. They have two choices — give up or die.”
Over the past few days, Iraqi forces have cut off the main supply line running from Mosul to the western border with Syria, where ISIL still controls the city of Raqa. The US-led coalition also bombed bridges over the Tigris river that splits Mosul in two, reducing ISIL’s ability to resupply the eastern front.
“The Iraqi advance on the south and south-east of the city has started to pick up some steam, which we think is a really great development,” said coalition spokesman Colonel John Dorrian. “It is extraordinarily tough fighting, just brutal, but there is an inevitability to it. The Iraqis are going to beat them.”
Moving around in an intricate network of tunnels, ISIL fighters have used snipers, booby traps and a seemingly endless supply of suicide car bombers to stop Iraqi forces. The authorities have not released casualty figures since the start of the offensive but combatants admit the ferocity of ISIL resistance has surprised them.
The offensive to capture Mosul began on October 17. Having started from the south, where they are now within striking distance of the airport, Iraqi forces are now also edging towards the city from the north.
* Agence France-Presse