A top Iraqi security official said locked fire exit doors and poor safety standards in a shopping mall contributed to the inferno that left at least 250 people dead in a car bomb attack in Baghdad on Sunday.
Gen. Abdel Amir Shammari, head of Baghdad Operations, a joint force of police and soldiers that protects the Iraqi capital, said the initial blast at a mall in the upper-middle-class Karrada district was caused by C4 plastic explosives packed into a van. But 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. Responsibility for the bombing was later claimed by ISIS.
“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.
The bombing on Sunday was the deadliest terrorist attack in Baghdad's recent history. Shammari’s allegation that Iraq's incompetence contributed to the extraordinarily high death toll jibed with an account from Iraqi-British scholar Sajad Jiyad, who lives in Baghdad and lost a friend in the attack.
Like most buildings in Iraq, Jiyad said, the mall was designed with minimal fire safety features such as sprinklers. The building’s exterior was made of combustible plastic sheets, and the shops inside and outside the mall were filled with flammable materials. The nearest fire station was in another neighborhood and the fire engines that did arrive at the mall quickly ran out of water.
“The door to the roof was welded shut to prevent the entry of burglars,” he wrote in a blog post, after touring the bomb site. “The only way in and out of the building was through the single front entrance.”
Together, “it was everything needed for an inferno,” he wrote.
“The explosion killed a small number of people instantly, but the subsequent fire that spread quickly trapped people in the mall and burned them alive,” Jiyad wrote. “Bodies that looked like they survived the fire were killed by smoke inhalation. In the basement, several bodies were found huddled close together, a desperate attempt to protect each other in the final moments. One father’s burned corpse was found shielding his daughter’s.”
The attack enraged Baghdad residents, who pelted Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi's convoy with shoes and rocks as he arrived at the site to survey the damage. In response to the attack, several security officials have been detained, and the minister of the interior, Mohammad al-Ghabban, submitted his resignation on Tuesday, though it has yet to be approved by Abadi.
Shammari said police believe the car bomb was assembled in Diyala province, northeast of the capital, which suggests it had to make its way through numerous checkpoints to get into one of Baghdad’s most important neighborhoods, a district adjacent to the fortress-like Green Zone.
Security officials in Baghdad are heavily attuned to the possibility of bombings in crowded areas and until about midnight they had closed the main road along Karrada to vehicle traffic as people started gathering in the hours after residents broke their Ramadan fast. At 12:30 a.m., after the crowds appeared to be thinning out, security officials reopened the road, giving the attacker the opportunity to strike, Shammari said.