NEWS BRIEF When a van packed with explosives blew up outside a shopping mall in Baghdad this weekend, a small group of people closest to it were killed instantly. But it was the flames from the blast that would push the death toll of the attack to nearly 300, making it the deadliest attack in Iraq in more than a decade.
The latest count of fatalities, announced by Iraq’s health ministry Tuesday, is 292 people, according to Reuters. The first reports of casualties of the attack, which occurred in the city’s Karrada district just after midnight Sunday, said about 90 people were killed. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the bombing.
The explosions created a fire that engulfed the Hadi Center, a multi-story building with clothing stores and eateries where many were shopping for presents for Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan. Emergency workers have spent the last few days pulling charred bodies from the debris, pushing the death toll higher.
Dozens of people inside burned to death or suffocated, officials said. Poor building conditions may have worsened the fire and prevented people from escaping, BuzzFeed’s Borzou Daragahi reported Wednesday, citing Lieutenant General Abdul Ameer al-Shammari, the head of Baghdad’s security forces:
… he said the area around the shopping center was filled with “flammable materials” and that the paneling used for the building’s facade contributed as much, if not more, to the higher death toll.
“The fire exits were closed specifically in that mall, and big numbers of people were in a café watching a football match,” Shammari said in a television interview late Tuesday night.
Sajad Jiyad, an Iraqi analyst living in Baghdad who was in Karrada at the time of the attack, wrote in a blog post Tuesday that the conditions of the building and the surrounding area were “everything needed for an inferno”:
The only way in and out of the building was through the single front entrance. The entire building was clad in plastic based panels, even more combustible than the aluminium based ones blamed for large fires in Dubai hotels this year. Fire safety inspections are rare and weak, and the mall was full of stores with flammable goods with little quality controls. In front of the mall the sidewalk was packed with vendors selling cheap clothes on the ground, perfect material for fires to consume. Next to them were mobile stalls selling falafel and fast food, with deep fryers and several gas canisters underneath. To the side were hundreds of crushed cardboard boxes and discarded packaging ready to be collected by the cleaners in the morning.
Many Iraqis have blamed the government for failing to secure the capital. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was pelted with rocks when he visited the site of the attack this week.