2 October 2019
- Bus bombing near Karbala demonstrates Islamic State (IS) will increase attempts to attack Shia targets amid growing regional tensions
- IS sectarian attacks will likely primarily target transport and restaurants in South and Baghdad, and Shia militias in northern areas
- Government pressure on Shia militias will prevent major retaliatory attacks against Sunnis, limiting risk of significant sectarian violence that could fuel recruitment for IS
Twelve people were killed and five others injured when an explosive device planted on board a bus detonated near the northern entrance of Karbala, an important Shia religious site around 90 km south of Baghdad, on 20 September. Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the attack the following day.
Since late 2017 – when Iraq declared victory against IS – the group has continued to carry out sporadic attacks mostly in the provinces of Diyala, Salah al-Din, Kirkuk and Anbar in the North and North-West, targeting security forces, oil installations and Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs) Shia militias. However, it has struggled to operate in Shia-majority areas south of Baghdad. Indeed, last month’s bus bombing marked the first IS attack in the South since more than 80 people were killed in a gun and suicide bomb attack in Nasiriyah, 300 km south-east of Baghdad, in September 2017. This illustrates that IS has extremely limited capabilities in southern areas, due in part to the strong presence of Shia militias. It will therefore have intended this attack to demonstrate its ability to strike outside the areas where its capabilities are greatest in an attempt to enhance the group’s credibility.
IS timed the bus bombing to capitalise on the gathering of Shia pilgrims in Karbala ahead of the religious commemoration of Arbaeen on 19 October. It may also be seeking to exploit the worsening relations between the Shia Government in Iran and the US and its Sunni-led Gulf allies, following the Tehran-directed attack on Saudi oil facilities last month, to drive sectarian violence within Iraq (see our 14 September Special Report). IS likely hopes the targeting of Shia interests will trigger retaliatory attacks against Sunnis by the PMUs, which it believes will drive instability and present opportunities for the group to gain recruits and support – and ultimately recapture territory.
IS will consequently want to carry out further attacks against Shia interests, particularly over the next few weeks and during future Shia religious festivals in order to provoke Sunni-Shia tensions. Due to enhanced security levels at Shia religious sites, IS will likely focus its attacks on softer targets such as transport, markets and restaurants in Shia-dominated areas in the South and Shia suburbs of the capital. Indeed, on 1 October security forces reported that they had foiled a suspected IS attack on pilgrims south of Baghdad. However, IS’s restricted capabilities in such areas will limit the potential for mass casualty attacks. Instead, attacks against PMUs in the North and North-West are more likely over the coming months. Despite IS’s attempts to provoke sectarian violence, pressure from the Government on the PMUs to avoid targeting Sunni communities means the potential for major Sunni-Shia unrest, which could fuel support for IS, is limited for now, which means IS’s backing and capabilities will continue to grow only gradually.
Separately, Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi said on 30 September that investigations into recent strikes on the PMUs in Salah al-Din and Anbar provinces, and near Baghdad, in July and August, indicate Israel was responsible, marking the first time Baghdad has directly blamed Tel Aviv. Indeed, we reported at the time that these strikes were credibly launched by Israel with Washington’s support (see our 4 September Report). Abdul Mahdi’s confirmation of Israeli involvement was likely due to pressure from both Iran and the PMUs to be seen to take a firmer line against Washington and Tel Aviv over the targeting of the Shia militias, highlighting how regional tensions will make it difficult for Baghdad to balance relationships with its key backers, the US and Iran. The PMUs will continue to launch limited attacks against the US to warn against further air strikes, as demonstrated by the 24 September rocket strikes near the US Embassy in Baghdad’s International Zone which were designed not to cause any damage. More significant PMU attacks against US interests will remain unlikely for now due to the risk of provoking a strong security response by Washington.