Car Bomb Kills 36 in Baghdad, ISIS Claims Responsibility

Explosion in Shi'ite district comes hours after French President Hollande's arrival to the country.

People look at a burned vehicle at the site of car bomb attack in Baghdad's Sadr City district, in Iraq, January 2, 2017.
AHMED SAAD/REUTERS

The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for a car bomb that exploded on Monday in a bustling market area in Baghdad, killing 36 people and wounding 52.

The suicide bomber blew up his explosives-laden vehicle in a Shi'ite neighborhood, hours after the arrival of French President Francois Hollande to the country and amid a fierce fight against ISIS.

Amaq news agency, a site linked to the militants, said in a statement distributed online that the attack had targeted a gathering of Shi'ite Muslims, which the ultra-hardline Sunni group considers apostates.

The bomber, driving a pickup truck, attacked an outdoor fruit and vegetable market, daily laborers and a police checkpoint in Baghdad's eastern Sadr City district, a police officer said.

The Islamic State also claimed responsibility for Saturday's suicide attack in a central Baghdad market, which killed at least 28 people, and Sunday's suicide bombing at a checkpoint south of Baghdad that killed at least nine people.

Iraq witnesses near-daily attacks, including in Baghdad, which have been frequently claimed by ISIS. Late last month, Iraqi authorities started removing some of the security checkpoints in Baghdad, mainly on its eastern side, in a bid to ease traffic for the capital's approximately 6 million residents.

The attack came Hollande started an official visit to Iraq to meet officials and French troops. During his one-day visit, Hollande met with Iraqi President Fuad Masum and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in the capital, Baghdad. Later, he'll travel to the country's self-governing northern Kurdish region to meet French troops and local officials.

French President Francois Hollande (left) at a news conference with Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, in Baghdad, Iraq, January 2, 2017.
Christophe Ena/AP

Iraqi troops, backed by a U.S.-led coalition, are fighting ISIS in a massive operation to retake the northern city of Mosul. Iraqi state TV said Holland will discuss "increasing support to Iraq and the latest developments in the fight against Daesh," the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.

In quotes published by the Elysee official Twitter account, Holland promised that France would remain a long-term ally of Iraq and called for coordination between intelligence services "in a spirit of great responsibility."

France is part of the U.S.-led international coalition formed in late 2014 to fight ISIS after the extremist group seized large areas in Iraq and neighboring Syria and declared an Islamic "caliphate." France has suffered multiple terrorist attacks claimed by ISIS.

Hollande, on Twitter, said Iraq was in a precarious position two years ago, when the Islamic State made its blitz. But now the tide has turned. "The results are there: Daesh is in retreat and the battle of Mosul is engaged."

Since the Mosul operation started on October 17, Iraqi forces have seized around a quarter of the city. Last week, the troops resumed fighting after a two-week lull due to stiff resistance by the militants, bad weather and thousands of civilians trapped in their houses.

In an interview with The Associated Press on Sunday, the senior U.S. military commander, Brig. Gen. Rick Uribe, praised the Iraqi forces fighting mainly on the eastern side of the city, saying they were "at their peak." Uribe agreed with al-Abadi's assessment that it would take another three months to liberate Mosul.

He predicted the troops would face a different fight when they cross to the west bank of the Tigris River, saying it will mostly be a "dismounted" battle fought in part on narrow streets, some of which were not wide enough for a vehicle to pass.

Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city is located about 360 kilometers (225 miles) northwest of Baghdad. While the Syrian city of Raqqa is considered the caliphate's de facto capital, Mosul is the largest city under its control. It is the last major ISIS urban stronghold in Iraq.