With a string of daring strikes despite rising pressure from U.S. and Iraqi forces, Islamic State fighters have unleashed a wave of suicide attacks against civilian and military targets in Iraq this week, creating carnage in the streets of Baghdad and raising new questions about the status of the U.S.-backed campaign to defeat the jihadist group.
At least 80 people were killed and over 100 were wounded after a massive car bomb ripped through a crowded market in eastern Baghdad’s Sadr City on Wednesday. Dual suicide attacks in western Baghdad targeting Iraqi police stations claimed the lives of two policemen and injuring dozens others.
Islamic State quickly claimed credit for the police station bombings and the Sadr City attack, which took place less than a week after followers of influential Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr breached the highly-fortified “Green Zone” in a show of defiance against Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government.
On Thursday, hundreds of Mr. al-Sadr’s supporters again flooded the streets of Baghdad after the attacks, demanding the Abadi regime take action to secure the capital against Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL.
Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said the brutal Islamic State terror attacks against civilians will likely accelerate as American and Iraqi forces inch closer to launching the battle to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, from Islamic State control.
“What I think we are talking about … is terrorist attacks and this is something we can expect ISIS is going to continue to do” as Iraqi and U.S. forces gear up for the long-awaited assault on Mosul.
But some say the attacks expose the vulnerability of the capital and the failure of Iraq’s police, military and security forces to coordinate their efforts.
“There is a multitude of security forces and no higher authority coordinating them,” an unnamed senior Iraqi intelligence official told the Associated Press.
In Syria, meanwhile, Islamic State forces have also made gains in recent days close to the ancient city of Syria, which fell to the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad in March in a major propaganda coup for the regime.
Capt. Davis said Islamic State’s latest strikes were not a sign that Islamic State was able to retake ground lost to U.S. and Iraqi forces in Iraq.
“I do not think this is indicative that this is the type of offensive toward regaining territory,” Capt. Davis said,
Iraqi and Kurdish forces, with U.S. air support, have dug in along the northern and western sides of Mosul. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told Congress earlier this month that those forces will be in position to begin the Mosul offensive by early June.
President Obama ordered an additional 217 U.S. military trainers and special operations forces into Iraq to support the pending assault into the city. Roughly 3,500 to 5,000 U.S. service members are on the ground in Iraq and Syria battling ISIS. Mr. Obama has said publicly he expects the campaign to recapture Mosul will be underway by the end of the year.
But Director of National Intelligence James Clapper contradicted that, saying that the capture of Mosul will take much longer.
“We will retake Mosul, but it will take a long time and be very messy.” Mr. Clapper said in an interview with the Washington Post. “I don’t see that happening in this administration.”
The timing of the long-awaited assault to retake Mosul from Islamic State control will be decided by Iraq, not U.S. commanders, according to the Pentagon.
“The movement into Mosul is something that is going to be determined by the Iraqi security forces,” Capt. Davis said Thursday. “This is their timeline, it’s their battle plan, it’s their country and their territory, and we will be in support of them in whatever timeline or sequencing of operations they plan to take.”
In Syria, al Qaeda fighters and other ultraconservative Sunni insurgents seized a predominantly Alawite village in central Syria on Thursday, sparking fears of sectarian violence as families from the village were reported missing by activists, the Associated Press reported.
Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi said “terrorists” were killing residents of the village of Zaara, previously controlled by the government. Syrian state media claimed that the jihadist forces had looted and destroyed homes.
Clashes continued into the afternoon as government or allied Russian aircraft pounded rebel positions, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, adding that seven militants were killed.
— This article was based in part on wire service reports.