BAGHDAD — At least 121 people died as a suicide car bomb blew up in a busy shopping street in central Baghdad in the early hours of Sunday morning, many burning to death as subsequent fires consumed cafes and stores in the Islamic State’s worst single attack on the Iraqi capital.
Another 212 people were injured in the bombing in the Karrada neighborhood, according to a senior Health Ministry official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information. He said he expected the death toll to climb, as many suffering from burns were in critical condition.
The bombing follows attacks in Turkey and Bangladesh over the past week that many have linked to the Islamic State. But it far outstrips them in the number of people killed. U.S. officials have warned that the group is likely to intensify its attacks overseas as it loses ground in Iraq and Syria, but civilians in the Middle East continue to bear the brunt of the campaign of bombings.
The attack came at a time apparently chosen to cause maximum loss of life. Families were out on the streets after breaking their fast on one of the final days of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and crowds had gathered in popular coffee shops to watch the semifinals of the Euro 2016 soccer tournament.
“The street was full of life last night, and now the smell of death is all over the place,” said Gaith Ali, 26, whose apartment windows were blown out in the explosion.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared three days of mourning for the victims. The Islamic State claimed responsibility, saying it had targeted Shiite Muslims. The militants have now lost almost half the territory they once controlled in Iraq, most recently losing their stronghold of Fallujah, 45 miles west of the capital.
The blast set off a huge blaze that engulfed two small shopping centers, leaving those inside stuck on the roof and screaming for help as firefighters attempted to rescue them. The fire spread rapidly, trapping people inside the Hadi shopping center, which has a large coffee shop on its top floor. It spread across the street to Laith shopping center.
Dhu al-Fuqqar, 23, was working there when the explosion hit but had left his shop to speak to friends on another floor. Minutes after the blast, fire was “eating” the building, he said. The owner of the shop where he works died in the attack along with his son, he said. A second son is still missing, and his mother is in a hospital being treated for shock, Fuqqar said.
“They were like family to me,” he said. He described how he tried to reach them after the blast but couldn’t because of the smoke. He said the streets were crowded because many people had gathered to watch Italy play Germany in the soccer tournament and the match had just finished.
“He chose the perfect time to cause casualties,” Fuqqar said.
The Karrada shopping district has been targeted by the group multiple times. Residents said that the street had been closed off by police earlier in the evening because of information about a potential attack but that it was reopened about an hour later.
“It means they knew but they didn’t do anything about it,” Fuqqar said.
At least half of those killed Sunday died in the fire that followed the blast, the health official said. More than 80 percent of them were younger than 30, he said, as the area is a popular gathering place for young people.
About 25 succumbed to their injures in the burn unit of the Baghdad Medical City hospital, according to another health official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information. At least 15 children were killed in the attack, the Associated Press reported.
A second explosion struck in eastern Baghdad shortly after the Karrada bombing, but there were conflicting reports on whether it was a bombing. Local media said that five people were killed when an improvised explosive device detonated. Iraq’s Interior Ministry said it was an accident caused by an exploding air-conditioning unit.
Abadi, who is from Karrada, visited the bomb site there Sunday, and his convoy was attacked by an angry crowd. “Thief!” people shouted at his motorcade, throwing stones, bottles and projectiles, according to footage posted online.
“Break the windshield! Don’t let him go!” one person yelled. Abadi has faced pressure from street protests in recent months as patience frays over widespread corruption, lack of services and growing insecurity. The recent successful offensive for Fallujah had given him some political breathing space, but there are still widespread calls for reform.
In a statement, the prime minister said that he understood the “feelings of emotion and anger from some of my dear sons” and that he shared their sorrow over an attack that was designed to rob Iraqis of their victory in Fallujah.
But for many, his words brought little comfort.
“I wish I was there when Abadi came,” Fuqqar said. “The blood of my friends is still on my hands, and I would have wiped it on his face. But I was busy looking for people in the hospitals.”
Although Baghdad has suffered numerous bombings at the hands of the militants, Sunday’s was the single worst in the Iraqi capital since the group was formed in 2013. It’s the worst in Iraq in almost a year, since a truck bomb blew up in a market in the eastern province of Diyala last July, killing 130 people.
On social media, Iraqis turned their anger toward a wand-style device that has been proved to be fake but is still widely used at checkpoints as a bomb detector. On Sunday night, Abadi announced that the devices should be withdrawn from checkpoints. Little more than an aerial attached to a plastic handle, they have been sold as capable of detecting explosives.
Earlier Sunday, after the bombing, the Interior Ministry’s website was hacked and a picture was posted of a bloodied baby and one of the supposed bomb detectors. “I don’t know how you sleep at night,” the hacked website read.
Morris reported from Beirut.