BAGHDAD – The Islamic State took responsibility on Saturday for the bombing of a minibus that killed 12 people near the entrance of a large Iraqi pilgrimage center.
The attack was one of the deadliest since the fall of the de facto capital of the Islamic State in late 2017, according to the Iraqi Security Forces.
It was also one of the few attacks by the Islamic State south of Baghdad since the group's self-declared caliphate collapsed. He brought back memories of the period following the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 when Shiite pilgrims were routinely targeted south of the capital while traveling to shrines in the cities of Karbala and Najaf.
The bomb, left on a minibus by a passenger, exploded at a checkpoint at a Karbala entrance near midnight on Friday. Killed 12 people, injured five and demolished the bus.
Security forces said they arrested a cell of three young people responsible. The three had lived in Jurf al-Sakhar, an area heavily used by the Islamic State during the period when it dominated much of Iraq.
When the group lost this territory, Sunnis were expelled and most were not allowed to return. Many have had a marginal existence since then, living in areas for displaced people. The three suspects were construction workers, officials said.
The attack also stands out because most Islamic State activity takes place in Sunni areas, mainly in the northern provinces of Salahuddin, Diyala, Kirkuk and Nineveh, as well as the western province of Anbar. These attacks often focus on members of the Iraqi security forces, local mayors, and occasionally other civil servants.
However, the attack is in line with a gradual increase in Islamic State activity – not just in Iraq but throughout the region.
Now is a sacred time for Shiites between the Ashura and Arbaeen holidays, which celebrate the founding family of Islam and the struggle to affirm their vision of faith. During this period, millions of pilgrims visit the shrines of Karbala and Najaf, traveling from all over Iraq and also from foreign countries.
During the worst years of the country's civil war, the insurgent group then known as Al Qaeda in Iraq routinely killed dozens of pilgrims. As its successor, the Islamic State, al Qaeda in Iraq adhered to Sunni Islam, while its targets were generally Shiite Muslims.
Iraqi security forces largely eliminated attacks on pilgrims, so Friday's was a worrying sign of the continuing threat from the Islamic State.