BAGHDAD (AP) — A suicide bomber blew up his explosives-laden vehicle Monday in a bustling market area in Baghdad, killing at least 22 people, Iraqi officials said, hours after the arrival of French President Francois Hollande to the country and amid a fierce fight against the Islamic State group.
The bomber driving a pickup truck attacked an outdoor fruit and vegetable market, day laborers and a police checkpoint in Baghdad’s eastern Sadr City district, a police officer said. Up to 35 other people were wounded in that attack, he said, adding that the death toll was expected to rise.
Two medical officials confirmed the casualty figures. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to release information.
In an online statement, the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it targeted Shiites. The Associated Press could not verify the authenticity of the statements, but they were posted on a militant website commonly used by the extremists. The group 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.
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.
During a press conference with Hollande, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said the bomber pretended to be a man seeking to hire day laborers; once the laborers gathered around, he detonated the vehicle. Al-Abadi warned that the “terrorists will further try to hit civilians to make up for the losses,” they have suffered on the battlefield.
“We are determined to annihilate terrorism and we are able to shorten its age,” he said, calling on security forces and civilians to remain vigilant.
Hollande, during his one-day visit, met with al-Abadi and President Fuad Masum. He was scheduled later to travel to the country’s self-governing northern Kurdish region to meet French troops and local officials.
Iraqi troops, backed by a U.S.-led coalition, are fighting IS in a massive operation to retake the northern city of Mosul. Iraqi state TV said Hollande will discuss “increasing support to Iraq and the latest developments in the fight against Daesh,” the Arabic acronym for IS.
In quotes published by the Elysee official Twitter account, Hollande 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 IS 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 IS.
Hollande, on Twitter, said Iraq was in a precarious position two years ago, when IS 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 Oct. 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 IS urban stronghold in Iraq.
Associated Press writers Murtada Faraj in Baghdad and Lori Hinnant in Paris contributed to this report.