35 killed as Baghdad bomb overshadows Hollande visit

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BAGHDAD: Some 35 people were killed on Monday in a suicide attack in Baghdad claimed by IS, an official said, overshadowing a visit by French President Francois Hollande who offered to step up support for Iraq’s campaign against the militants.
The bomb attack hit a busy residential and commercial area in the city’s eastern suburb of Sadr city.
Prime Minister Haider al Abadi said the attackers lured casual workers waiting for employment onto their vehicle, promising them work, before blowing it up.
The official, from the Interior Ministry and speaking on condition of anonymity, said another 62 people were injured.
IS has carried out frequent bomb attacks on areas dominated by another faction of Muslims in Baghdad, often targeting markets, restaurants and other crowded areas to maximise casualties.
Security forces in Baghdad also reported two explosions near a hospital, killing a number of people. Hollande, speaking after a meeting with Al Abadi, said that he thought Iraqi forces would recapture the northern city of Mosul from IS within weeks. International efforts to support Iraqi forces in recapturing the extremists’ main stronghold in the country should be scaled up, the French president said. Government forces working to liberate Mosul have met fierce resistance from IS snipers and suicide attackers.
Despite rapid advances outside the city after the offensive on Mosul was launched in October, in recent weeks government forces have struggled to maintain momentum in fighting on the city’s east bank. The city centre, where the extremists are thought to be more heavily concentrated and dug in, lies on the west bank.
The next target of the international coalition against IS would be its de facto Syrian capital of Al Raqqa, Hollande said, vowing that France would play its part in both countries.
Kurdish-led Syrian forces backed by US-led coalition airstrikes are currently advancing on the north-eastern Syrian city.
The French president said that if French citizens fighting on the side of IS were caught by Iraqi forces, they would be subject to Iraqi law.
Any fighters who came back to France would be arrested, he said. He warned that French rebels’ children had also been recruited as fighters and would have to be monitored and “deradicalised” if they returned.
Hollande earlier visited French troops who have been providing training, back-up and artillery support to Iraqi forces in the campaign for Mosul, the last major Iraqi city held by IS.
IS fighters mounted an assault on Iraqi forces south of Mosul on Monday, forcing them to withdraw from a number of positions, a security official said on condition of anonymity.
The key Baiji refinery, some 150 kms south of Mosul, came under shelling from the advancing extremists, the official said.
IS’s Aamaq Agency claimed that the group had cut off the government’s main supply route between Baiji and Mosul. The security official said the road had been closed to vehicles. Iraqi forces breached the city’s eastern perimeter within two weeks of launching their assault on Mosul in October.
The commander of US forces in the campaign against IS, General Stephen Townsend, said in December that Iraqi forces had captured about a quarter of the city, including more than half of the east bank. In December 2015, as Iraqi forces entered the centre of the former IS stronghold of Ramadi in western Iraq, Al Abadi had vowed that 2016 would be “the year that ends IS’s presence in Iraq.” Government forces recaptured the western city of Fallujah in June, leaving the group concentrated in Mosul and largely rural areas of northern and western Iraq. IS has held Mosul since a lightning offensive in mid-2014 in which it routed government forces from much of Arab northern and western Iraq. — dpa