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Dozens Die in Baghdad Suicide Blast Claimed by IS


People gather at the site of a suicide bomb attack in al-Shaab district, Baghdad, Iraq, Oct.15, 2016.

A suicide bomber in Baghdad killed more than 35 people and wounded over 50 others Saturday in an attack on Shi'ite Muslim religious observances.

Some accounts from the northern Baghdad district of al-Shaab indicated casualties could be considerably higher. A tweet sent in the name of the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack, which it said was carried out by "the martyrdom-seeking brother Abu-Fahd al-Iraqi."

Reports from the scene said the bomber detonated a belt filled with explosives inside a large, crowded tent set up for Shi'ite Ashura rituals. Many people there were commemorating the death of Hussein, the Prophet Muhammad's grandson, in a seventh-century battle near the Iraqi town of Karbala. Others in the crowd were taking part in a funeral procession for a local resident.

Bombing decried

Both the United States and Iran condemned the attack and extended condolences to the victims.

A statement issued in Washington denounced "the barbaric terrorist attack" as "yet another sign of [Islamic State's] cowardice and contempt for human life."

U.S. officials said the bombing was an "attempt to sow sectarian discord among the people of Iraq ... [that] only underscores the importance of coalition efforts to support Iraqi security forces."

"The United States remains committed to that goal," they added.

From Tehran, the Fars news agency reported that the Iranian Foreign Ministry called on the international community to support the Iraqi government "until the complete failure of the terrorists."

Islamic State, most of whose members are Sunni Muslim extremists, considers Shi'ites to be heretics. Saturday's bombing was the deadliest attack in the Iraqi capital since early July, and it also came at a time when Iraqi government forces are making final preparations for a battle to retake the IS-held northern city of Mosul.

Hilal Khashan, who teaches political science at the American University of Beirut, told VOA the battle for Mosul was likely to stir up further sectarian tensions, including more suicide bombings.

"I think that once ISIS is defeated in Mosul, we will see more and more suicide attacks," Khashan said. "Even with the capture of Mosul, it will be too early to celebrate victory against Islamic State. ISIS doesn't spare anybody, but needless to say they have a vested interest in targeting Iraqi Shi'ites."

Iraq's elite counterterrorism forces gather ahead of an operation to retake the Islamic State-held city of Mosul, outside Irbil, Iraq, Oct. 15, 2016.
Iraq's elite counterterrorism forces gather ahead of an operation to retake the Islamic State-held city of Mosul, outside Irbil, Iraq, Oct. 15, 2016.

Complex effort

The coming battle for Mosul is expected to be the most difficult and complex yet in the war against Islamic State. A coalition of diverse and sometimes rival Iraqi forces will have to fight through elaborate IS defenses to reach Mosul, which has a large civilian population.

The prospect of lengthy street fighting between Iraqi forces and die-hard jihadists has led many analysts and aid officials to warn of an expected humanitarian crisis, with up to a million people displaced by the fighting as winter sets in.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, visiting government-held areas near Mosul on Saturday, urged Iraqis from all sectarian groups to unite to recapture the city and destroy Islamic State.

In addition to the suicide attack on Shi'ites marking Ashura, separate attacks by militants in two areas north of Baghdad on Saturday killed another 12 people.

VOA's Steve Herman contributed to this report.