Northern Baghdad bombing kills 17 as Iraqi army retakes nearby airport

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Published Monday, December 29, 2014

A suicide bomber attacked Shia pilgrims north of Baghdad on Monday, killing at least 17 people, officials and a survivor of the blast said, a day after Iraqi army retook an airport in nearby Dhuluiyah region.

The attack in the Taji area, which targeted a tent serving refreshments to pilgrims, also wounded at least 35 people.

Pilgrims from Iraq and abroad are making their way to Samarra, north of Baghdad, to commemorate the death of Hassan al-Askari, one of the 12 revered Shia imams, who is buried in the city.

"We were distributing food, fruit and tea to the pilgrims who were walking to Samarra, and a suicide (bomber) blew himself up," Sajjad, 25, said at a Baghdad hospital where his brother Mustafa was being treated for shrapnel wounds.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, but suicide bombings are almost exclusively carried out by extremists in Iraq, including the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group.

Large swathes of land in Iraq have become ISIS strongholds as the militant group, which declared a "caliphate" in the territory it seized in Iraq and Syria, drove Iraq's army – the recipient of $25 billion in US training and funding since the 2003 invasion – to collapse.

Since then, Iraqi forces have been trying to halt the advance of the militants and taking back territories captured.

Iraqi forces backed by pro-government tribes advanced into the town of Dhuluiyah north of Baghdad on Sunday in a new attempt to push out ISIS.

Iraqi forces launched their latest offensive on Friday, attacking ISIS positions on several fronts and capturing a string of villages south of Dhuluiyah.

On Sunday, the troops finally entered from the north backed by the Iraqi air force, and seized the airport just outside the town.

According to military officers, soldiers were still facing some pockets of resistance from snipers and were treading carefully to avoid landmines sown by the militants.

In October, Iraqi forces retook from ISIS most of Dhuluiyah, strategically located on roads linking the eastern province of Diyala to Salaheddin province in the north, but the militants later launched a counter-offensive and seized ground they had lost.

In November, the army retook the strategic town of Baiji and its refinery from ISIS.

After the victory in Baiji, an army brigadier said the military would seek next to isolate militants holding the city of Tikrit, home town of executed dictator Saddam Hussein, and also close in on Samarra.

Washington, which has delivered arms and military support to Baghdad since the the 2003 invasion, has expanded its military presence in Iraq after the ISIS advancements.

US President Barack Obama, who was elected in 2008 largely due to his promises to exit Middle Eastern military entanglements, - especially in Iraq - and avoiding new ones, said US will deploy 3,000 (1,500 in addition to the 1,500 approved earlier) troops and “trainers and advisers” for Iraq’s Anbar.

Meanwhile, the US-led anti-ISIS coalition forces on Sunday conducted five airstrikes against militants in northern Iraq and eight air assaults in Syria, the US military said in a statement.

The attacks in Iraq included ISIS positions near Sinjar and near Mosul. In Syria, airstrikes centered on the town of Kobani near the Turkish border, the Combined Joint Task Force said.

The United States, backed by some Western and Arab allies, launched airstrikes against the group in Iraq in August, expanding operations to targets in Syria a month later.

However, the air campaign, which Washington says aims to degrade ISIS' military capability, remains the subject of debate, with critics pointing to ISIS' advances and battlefield successes in last months.

Despite the US-led airstrikes, ISIS seems to have had taken countermeasures in advance to prepare for air raids. Security sources and witnesses say that ISIS fighters, after the coalition declared war on the group, began to alter the ways they control territory and their public appearances.

According to Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby, the coalition costs Iraq over $6.7 million a day, but it has yet to find an opening that would enable Iraqi ground forces to recapture regions under ISIS control.

Ali al-Saray, a journalist keeping track of the coalition’s strikes said to AL-Akhbar “the international air campaign only postponed ISIS’ advancement, and with time they started to realize how hard it would be to settle the matter after the militants changed their techniques and hid among civilians, then somewhat stopped their public parades.”

Death of Iranian military adviser in Iraq

On Sunday, Iran's Revolutionary Guards announced the death of Brigadier General Hamid Taghavi, who had been training the army and Iraqi volunteers in the city of Samarra, north of Baghdad.

Iran's Revolutionary Guards has not said how Taghavi died, but his funeral was held in Tehran on Monday in the presence of several senior officials.

"If people like the martyr Taghavi were not engaged in Syria and Iraq against the terrorists, the enemy would surely look to create insecurity in our country," Supreme National Security Council secretary Ali Shamkhani told funeral goers, the official Fars news agency reported.

Iran has sent military advisers to Iraq to help train and equip army troops in their counteroffensive against ISIS. It has also armed Kurdish forces in northern Iraq and Iranian media have reported the deaths of several military personnel in both Iraq and Syria this year.

Samarra, 110 kilometers (70 miles) north of Baghdad, is a mainly Sunni city but also home to the Askari shrine, one of the holiest sites to Shia.

Several Iranian officials, including President Hassan Rouhani, have declared the preservation of Iraqi Shia sites a "red line."

Iran is not participating in a US-led coalition conducting air strikes against ISIS positions in Iraq and neighboring Syria, despite false claims from Western media which Iran had repeatedly falsified.

(AFP, Reuters, Al-Akhbar)


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