Jul 5, 2016 2:34 PM

Bloody attacks with suspected IS links mark end of Ramadan

The Associated Press

BAGHDAD (AP) — The government minister largely responsible for security in Baghdad submitted his resignation Tuesday, two days after one of the biggest bombings in more than a decade of war and insurgency killed 175 people as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan came to an especially bloody conclusion.

In addition to the violence in Baghdad, the final week of Ramadan saw suicide attackers strike near one of Islam's holiest sites in Saudi Arabia, in an upscale neighborhood of the capital of Bangladesh, and at the international airport in Turkey's commercial hub of Istanbul.

The series of attacks, which bore the hallmarks of the Islamic State group, killed both Muslims and non-Muslims, but also highlighted the reach of the militants beyond Iraq and Syria, where they hold territory and where a U.S.-led coalition is focusing most of their resources against the extremists.

Muslims worldwide are preparing for the Eid al-Fitr holiday that marks the end of Ramadan.

Iraqis were still recovering bodies from the site of Sunday's truck bombing in the center of the capital — the single deadliest attack claimed by the Islamic State group worldwide.

At least 175 people were killed and nearly 200 wounded, while a dozen people remain unaccounted for. Police and health officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information, warned that the death toll could grow.

The bombing followed a string of significant territorial losses suffered by the IS militants on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria where they have declared their caliphate.

At the height of the group's power in 2014, it controlled nearly a third of Iraqi and Syrian territory. Since then, coalition airstrikes have cleared the way for Iraqi and Syrian ground forces to regain territory. But as IS militants are pushed out of towns and cities, the group has increased insurgent attacks in Iraqi government-held territory and beyond.

The Baghdad attack came a week after IS was pushed out of the Iraqi city of Fallujah. Iraqi military gains against IS have repeatedly failed to translate into increased security for Iraqi civilians in areas firmly under government control.

Iraq's government has come under heavy criticism for its failure to provide security in Baghdad, and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was chased away from the bomb site hours after the attack by a crowd that hurled shoes and rocks, calling him a "thief."

Different forces that rarely coordinate or share information are responsible for security in the capital. The groups include the army, federal and local police and government-sanctioned Shiite militia groups. The Interior Ministry is in charge of the police.

In announcing he had submitted his resignation, Interior Minister Mohammed Salem al-Ghabban told a news conference the government needs to hand over complete control of security inside Iraqi cities to the Interior Ministry. He said he submitted a reform plan when he took office in 2015, but it was shelved.

Al-Ghabban said the prime minister has not yet accepted his resignation.

The government "has failed in having the different array of security forces work under a unified plan in Baghdad," al-Ghabban said.

In Saudi Arabia, officials identified a suicide bomber who struck outside the U.S. Consulate in Jiddah as a Pakistani resident of the kingdom who arrived 12 years ago to work as a driver.

The suicide bombing near the diplomatic post was the first of three Monday targeting the kingdom, including one outside of the sprawling mosque grounds where the Prophet Muhammad is buried in the western city of Medina that killed four Saudi security troops and wounded five. Millions of Muslims from around the world visit the mosque every year as part of their pilgrimage to Mecca.

At the time of the blast, the mosque was packed with thousands of worshippers breaking their daylong fast and preparing for the sunset prayers.

The day after the attacks, King Salman warned that "the kingdom is determined to strike with an iron fist all those who target the minds, ideas and attitudes of our dear youth," adding that the biggest challenge facing Muslims worldwide is protecting young people from extremist ideas.

The U.S. State Department said the violence marring the final days of Ramadan underscores the "scope of the threat we all face, and remind us of the need to continue to stay focused on combatting violent extremism and bringing those responsible for it to justice."

White House National Security spokesman Ned Price said the intent of the Saudi attack was "to sow division and fear."

Worshippers in Medina expressed shock that such a prominent holy site in Saudi Arabia could have been targeted.

"That's not an act that represents Islam," said Altayeb Osama, a 25-year-old Sudanese visitor and resident of Abu Dhabi who said he heard two large booms about a minute apart as he was heading toward the mosque Monday. "People never imagined that this could happen here."

The U.N. human rights chief, Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, said in a statement from Geneva that the Medina bombing "can be considered a direct attack on Muslims all across the world."

"The significance of this attack cannot simply be measured in terms of the four policemen who were reported to have been killed, and the physical damage. It is an attack on the religion itself," the statement said.

The spokesman for U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the acts in Saudi Arabia "are all the more despicable as they were carried out as residents were preparing for Eid al-Fitr celebrations."

Not only have Saudi Arabia's regional allies also condemned the attack in Medina, but so have its foes, including Shiite-led Iran and the Lebanese militant Shiite group Hezbollah, as well as Afghanistan's Taliban, which itself has carried out numerous attacks against civilians. The Taliban said in a statement obtained by The Associated Press that the blast was a "gruesome act."

Another suicide bombing in the predominantly Shiite region of Qatif in eastern Saudi Arabia may have included three attackers, according to state-linked media and a statement from the Interior Ministry.

While no group has claimed responsibility for the Saudi attacks, the IS group has been behind more than two dozen terror attacks in the kingdom in the last two years.

Last week, seven gunmen in the capital of Bangladesh took 35 hostages at a restaurant in an upscale Dhaka neighborhood before killing 20 of them, including nine Italians and seven Japanese. Authorities stormed the restaurant Saturday morning, killing six of the gunmen and capturing one. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility. The bodies of the Japanese victims were returned home Tuesday.

On June 28, three suicide bombers armed with assault rifles attacked Istanbul's Ataturk Airport, killing at least 44 people and wounding scores more. No group has claimed responsibility for that attack, but Turkish authorities say they suspect the IS group is to blame.

___

Batrawy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writers Murtada Faraj and Ali Abdul-Hassan in Baghdad, Matthew Lee in Washington, Jamey Keaten in Geneva, Adam Schreck and Jon Gambrell in Dubai, Munir Ahmed and Kathy Gannon in Islamabad and Nasser Karimi in Tehran contributed to this report.

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