Three gunmen opened fire overnight on a cafe in northern Iraq where young men had gathered at the start of the weekend, killing at least 12 and wounding 25, police and hospital sources said Friday.
The assailants in the predominately Shi’ite Muslim town of Balad, 80 km (50 miles) north of Baghdad, sprayed machine gun fire from their cars for around 10 minutes before speeding off.
Hours later a suicide bomber set off his explosive vest at a nearby vegetable market after police and Shi’ite militia members cornered him in a disused building and exchanged gunfire, security sources said. Four were killed and two critically wounded, medical sources added.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks but the area, which was nearly overrun by ISIS militants in 2014, remains around 40 km from a frontline held by Shi’ite militiamen.
The attackers had passed three police checkpoints before reaching their target, said police sources who declined to be identified as they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Security forces deployed throughout the town Friday morning, fearing more attacks.
An intelligence source said fighters from the powerful Iranian-backed Badr Organisation raided a nearby house and detained 13 members of a Sunni family. There were reports of gunfire in an adjacent orchard.
Iraqi authorities have come under heightened criticism over security breaches that allowed suicide attackers to set off three bombs Wednesday in Baghdad, killing at least 80 people in the bloodiest day in the capital so far this year.
The country is also facing a political crisis over a cabinet overhaul that has crippled government for weeks and threatens to undermine the U.S.-backed war against ISIS, which still controls swathes of territory in the north and west which it seized in 2014.
The fight against the ultra-hardline Sunni militants has exacerbated a sectarian conflict in Iraq, mostly between the Sunni minority and the Shi’ite majority, which emerged after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
One of the shooting victims, a 22-year-old named Tahseen, told a doctor at Balad Hospital he had been smoking a water pipe when a man wearing civilian clothes and a bandolier filled with ammunition crossed the street towards the cafe. He described several blasts, likely from stun bombs, amid the shooting.
Unverified photographs of the shooting site published by a local news website showed a laptop splayed on the floor of al-Furat Cafe amid piles of blood. A long streak of blood suggested one of the victims had been dragged out past couches where they had been relaxing moments earlier.——-REUTERS