Three militants gunned down coffee-shop patrons in central Iraq on Friday morning before blowing up themselves and security personnel, killing at least 20 people, officials said, in the latest deadly attacks claimed by ISIS in the country.
Counting Friday’s carnage in Balad, a Shiite-majority city 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of Baghdad, attacks claimed by the Sunni terror group ISIS have left more than 110 people dead in the last three days.
In Friday’s first attack, gunmen stormed al-Furat coffee shop in Balad, shooting and killing at least 13 people and injuring 22 others, Iraqi police said. The coffee shop is a gathering place for Iraqi supporters of the Real Madrid football club.
“The club expresses its great sadness and offers its regards and condolences to the families and friends of the victims,” Real Madrid said in a statement.
The club added that its players would wear black armbands on Saturday “as a sign of their mourning and respect. Football and sport shall always be spaces in which to come together and in which harmony and peace reign and with which no form of barbaric terrorism will be able to compete.”
Security forces set up checkpoints in the area, but the gunmen weren’t immediately found.
Two hours later, three men wearing explosive vests – believed to be the coffee-shop attackers – engaged in a gunfight with security personnel at a major checkpoint in the city, police said.
All three attackers eventually blew themselves up at the checkpoint. The gun battle and explosions left seven police officers dead and 12 others injured, security officials said.
ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks, in a statement posted by its supporters.
Scores killed earlier this week
Friday’s attacks follow a series of ISIS-claimed bombings that killed scores of people in Baghdad this week.
On Wednesday, more than 90 people were killed in suicide bombings in two largely Shiite neighborhoods in one of the bloodiest days in the Iraqi capital this year.
• A car bomb that exploded at a Sadr City market, killing at least 64 people and injuring 87 others.
• A suicide bombing in a busy square in al-Jamia neighborhood, killing at least 17 people and injuring 43 others.
On Thursday, two suicide bombers blew themselves up at a police station in western Baghdad, killing three police officers and injuring 10 others, authorities said.
ISIS changing strategy
Political risk analyst Kirk Sowell said earlier this week that the jihadist group’s tactics are changing as it loses grip on territory. ISIS has controlled parts of Iraq and Syria for what it calls its Islamic caliphate.
“ISIS has receded somewhat militarily; they don’t have a … standing army to hold territory,” Sowell said. “But what they’re good at unfortunately is these terrorist attacks against soft targets.
“(Wednesday) was worse than most, but in the last few months there’s been this increased focus on terrorist attacks going back to pre-2014 tactics.”
Experts have said a security vacuum has opened in Iraq as it faces renewed political turmoil. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is struggling to firm up a government capable of battling ISIS and, at the same time, address the country’s long-standing economic and political wounds from years of war.
CNN’s Mohammed Tawfeeq, Jomana Karadsheh, Joshua Berlinger, Tim Hume, Ashley Fantz, and Euan McKirdy contributed to this report.