Twin suicide bombings ripped through a busy market in the Iraqi capital on Thursday, killing at least 32 people and wounding dozens, officials said in what was the first massive bombing in years, harkening back to darker days of rampant militant attacks.
The rare suicide bombing hit the Bab al-Sharqi commercial area in central Baghdad amid heightened political tensions over planned early elections and a severe economic crisis. Blood was splattered on the pavement of the busy market amid piles of clothes and shoes as survivors took stock of the disarray in the aftermath.
By sundown, crowds reappeared at the site of the deadly attack, carrying the coffins of the deceased in a show of defiance. Many questioned the timing of the attack, which occurred a day after President Joe Biden was sworn into office. The U.S.-led coalition recently ceased combat activities and is gradually drawing down its troop presence in Iraq, sparking fears of an IS resurgence.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, but Iraqi military officials said it was the work of the Islamic State group.
Iraq’s health minister Hassan Mohammed al-Tamimi said at least 32 people were killed and 110 were wounded in the attack. He said some of the wounded were in serious condition. Iraq’s military previously put the number of dead at 28. The Health Ministry announced that all of its hospitals in the capital were mobilized to treat the wounded.
Maj. Gen. Tahsin al-Khafaji, spokesman for the Joint Operations Command, which includes an array of Iraqi forces, said the first suicide bomber cried out loudly that he was ill in the middle of the bustling market, prompting a crowd to gather around him — and that’s when he detonated his explosive belt.
The second detonated his belt shortly after, he said.
“This is a terrorist act perpetrated by a sleeper cell of the Islamic State,” al-Khafaji said. He said IS “wanted to prove its existence” after suffering many blows in military operations to root out the militants.
At the Vatican, Pope Francis denounced the attack in Baghdad as a “senseless act of brutality” and urged Iraqis to keep working to replace violence with fraternity and peace. The telegram of condolences sent to the Iraqi president was particularly heartfelt, given Francis is due to visit Iraq in early March to try to encourage the country’s Christian communities that have been devastated by IS persecution.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres strongly condemned the Baghdad attack and appealed to the Iraqi people “to reject any attempts to spread fear and violence aimed at undermining peace, stability and unity,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
The U.N. chief called on the government “to ensure that those behind these horrific crimes are swiftly identified and brought to justice,” Dujarric said.
Thursday’s twin suicide bombings marked the first in three years to target Baghdad’s bustling commercial district. A suicide bomb attack took place in the same area in 2018 shortly after then-Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi declared victory over the Islamic State, a Sunni militant group.
Iraq has seen assaults perpetrated by both the Islamic State group and mostly Shiite militia groups in recent months. Militias have routinely targeted the American presence in Iraq with rocket and mortar attacks, especially the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone. The pace of those attacks, however, has decreased since an informal truce was declared by Iran-backed armed groups in October.
The style of Thursday’s assault was similar to those IS has conducted in the past. But the group has rarely been able to penetrate the capital since being dislodged by Iraqi forces and the U.S.-led coalition in 2017. For some it brought back painful memories from the height of Iraq’s sectarian street wars, when suicide bombings were a near-daily occurrence.
IS has shown an ability to stage increasingly sophisticated attacks across northern Iraq, where it still maintains a presence, three years after Iraq declared victory over the group.
Iraqi security forces are frequently ambushed and targeted with IEDs in rural areas of Kirkuk and Diyala. An increase in attacks was seen last summer as militants took advantage of the government’s focus on tackling the coronavirus pandemic.
The twin bombings Thursday came days after Iraq’s government unanimously agreed to hold early elections in October. Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi had announced in July that early polls would be held to meet the demands of anti-government protesters.
Demonstrators took to the streets in the tens of thousands last year to demand political change, and an end to rampant corruption and poor services. More than 500 people were killed in mass demonstrations as security forces used live rounds and tear gas to disperse crowds.
Iraq is also grappling with a severe economic crisis brought on by low oil prices that has led the government to borrow internally and risk depleting its foreign currency reserves. The Central Bank of Iraq devalued Iraq’s dinar by nearly 20% last year to meet spending obligations.
The government of Dubai on Wednesday ordered all hospitals to cancel nonessential surgeries for the next month as coronavirus infections surge to unprecedented heights in the United Arab Emirates.
In a circular sent to government-run and private health centers across the emirate, Dubai’s Health Authority announced that starting Thursday medical operations “may be allowed to continue only per medical urgency” as the city tries to keep its hospitals from becoming overrun.
For the ninth consecutive day, the UAE shattered its record for new infections, reporting 3,509 cases. The country does not release location data for infections, making it difficult to determine where in the federation of seven sheikhdoms has been hardest hit by the virus.
Dubai, its economy built largely on aviation, hospitality and retail, has remained open for tourism and business throughout weeks of skyrocketing cases. The capital of Abu Dhabi has retained tighter restrictions, requiring all who travel through to present a negative COVID-19 test.
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Daily infections in the country have nearly tripled since November. Tens of thousands of tourists flooded Dubai to celebrate New Year’s Eve and the holidays in recent weeks. The emirate mandates social distancing inside and masks outside, but otherwise a sense of normalcy prevails.
Overall, the outbreak in the UAE has infected over 260,000 people and killed 762 amid an aggressive testing campaign. The country's population, fewer than 10 million, is mostly comprised of young expatriate workers.
Meanwhile, Lebanon continued to grapple with record numbers as confirmed deaths surpassed 2,000.
The steep rise in infections and deaths in the small country of some 6 million comes despite a strict weeklong lockdown and as hospitals are overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients. The government will meet Thursday to consider whether to extend the nationwide lockdown beyond Feb 1.
For the third straight day, a record number of deaths from the virus was recorded with 64 more recorded Wednesday. That brings the total number of deaths to 2,084 and over 264,000 infections since February last year.
The United States called Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates “major security partners” early Saturday, a previously unheard of designation for the two countries home to major American military operations.
A White House statement tied the designation to Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates normalizing ties to Israel, saying it “reflects their extraordinary courage, determination and leadership.” It also noted the two countries long have taken part in U.S. military exercises.
It’s unclear what the designation means for Bahrain, an island kingdom off Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf, and the UAE, a federation of seven sheikhdoms home to Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, while the UAE’s Jebel Ali port is the busiest port of call for American warships outside of the U.S. Bahrain hosts some 5,000 American troops, while the UAE hosts 3,500, many at Al-Dhafra Air Base.
Already, the U.S. uses the designation of “major non-NATO ally” to describe its relationship with Kuwait, which hosts the forward command of U.S. Army Central. That designation grants a country special financial and military considerations for nations not part of NATO. Bahrain also is a non-NATO ally.
The U.S. military’s Central Command and the Pentagon did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The 5th Fleet referred queries to the State Department, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The White House designation comes in the final days of President Donald Trump’s administration. Trump forged close ties to Gulf Arab countries during his time in office in part over his hard-line stance on Iran. That’s sparked a series of escalating incidents between the countries after Trump unilaterally withdrew from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers.
It also comes after Bahrain and the UAE joined Egypt and Saudi Arabia in beginning to resolve a yearslong boycott of Qatar, another Gulf Arab nation home to Al-Udeid Air Base that hosts Central Command’s forward operating base. That boycott began in the early days of Trump’s time in office after he visited Saudi Arabia on his first foreign trip.
Turkey launched Thursday the mass vaccination program against COVID-19 with the vaccines developed by China's Sinovac company.
According to the Turkish Health Ministry, the first doses will be given to over 1 million health workers across the country, followed by adults living in nursing homes.
The vaccination of healthcare workers in the country's biggest city Istanbul with a population of 16.5 million is expected to be completed within two days, according to Nurettin Yiyit, the chief doctor of the Feriha Oz Emergency Hospital.
The hospital, which was built in 2020 to treat specifically COVID-19 patients, allocated 30 vaccination rooms to conduct the program in the quickest way possible.
"We can do the injections to up to 1,800 people per day," Yiyit told Xinhua when the vaccination started simultaneously in all the rooms.
"This figure could go up if needed," he noted, adding that the hospital received 1,000 appointments for the first day.
Hale Erisir, who has been working as an anesthetist at the hospital, came to the vaccination center early in the morning to get her jab done after taking her appointment through an online system.
Erisir has been fighting actively at the forefront against the coronavirus since the pandemic erupted in the country in mid-March 2020.
"I have always believed in the positive effects of vaccines, and I am sure that this program has the strength to end the pandemic," Erisir told Xinhua, noting that she expects everyone to get vaccinated.
The entire process is administered in all 81 provinces through an online system and a mobile application, which can also track the long-term side effects of the vaccine.
On Wednesday, the health ministry granted the emergency use authorization for the COVID-19 vaccine produced by Sinovac after completing the necessary safety tests.
Turkish Health Minister Fahrettin Koca and the members of the Coronavirus Scientific Advisory Board have gotten their vaccines during a live broadcast after granting the authorization.
"This vaccination drive is needed to return to our normal, old way of life," Koca said, urging people to get vaccinated. He earlier announced that the Sinovac's vaccines were 91.25 percent effective in trials in the country.
Turkey received the first shipment of 3 million doses of vaccines from China at the end of December, as part of a deal for a total of 50 million, and expects to get the rest in the upcoming period.
Kuwait’s foreign ministry announced Monday that Saudi Arabia will open its air and land borders with Qatar in the first steps toward ending a diplomatic crisis that has deeply divided regional U.S. allies since 2017.
The state-run Kuwait News Agency reported the announcement, saying that Saudi Arabia would open its borders with Qatar starting Monday evening.
Qatar’s only land border has been mostly closed since mid-2017, when Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain launched a blockade against the tiny Gulf state, accusing it of supporting Islamist groups in the region and of having warm ties with Iran. The border has opened just briefly during the past three years to allow Qataris into Saudi Arabia to perform the Islamic hajj pilgrimage.
Kuwait has been mediating between Qatar and the four Arab states. On Monday, Kuwait’s Foreign Minister Ahmad Nasser al-Mohammad Al Sabah reportedly traveled to Qatar to deliver a message to Qatar’s ruling emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.
The lifting of the embargo by Saudi Arabia paves the way for Qatar’s ruler to attend a summit of Gulf leaders Tuesday that will be held in the kingdom’s desert city of Al-Ula. The summit would traditionally be chaired by the Saudi monarch, King Salman, though his son and heir, the crown prince, may instead lead the meeting.
Kuwait’s foreign minister said in a statement carried on state TV that the Kuwaiti emir had spoken with Qatar’s emir and Saudi Arabia’s crown prince. The conversations “emphasized that everyone was keen on reunification,” and would gather in Al-Ula to sign a statement that promises to “usher in a bright page of brotherly relations.”
The Gulf Cooperation Council summit will be “inclusive,” leading the states toward “reunification and solidarity in facing the challenges of our region,” Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was quoted as saying in remarks carried by the Saudi state-run news agency.
The decision by the close U.S. allies comes in the final days of the Trump administration’s time in office. Trump’s advisor and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, visited Saudi Arabia and Qatar in early December in a final attempt to secure a diplomatic breakthrough.
The decision to end the Saudi blockade of Qatar also comes just ahead of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s swearing in. Saudi Arabia may be seeking to clear contentious files that could prove stumbling blocs to building warm ties with the Biden administration, which is expected to take a firmer stance toward the kingdom’s policies than Trump’s four years in office.
There was no immediate comment by the UAE, Egypt or Bahrain on the announcement. However, in recent days Emirati and Egyptian statements have been made welcoming Saudi efforts to resolving the dispute.