A wave of car bombs exploded across Baghdad on Saturday, killing more than 60 people, and militants stormed a university campus in western Iraq, security and medical sources said.
In total, there were a dozen blasts in the capital, the deadliest of which occurred in Bayaa district, where a car bomb left 23 people dead, many of them young men playing billiards.
“I was about to close my shop when I heard a huge explosion on the main commercial street,” said Kareem Abdullah, whose legs were still shaking from the shock. “I saw many cars set ablaze as well as shops.”
Other bombs went off near a cinema, a popular juice shop and a mosque.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for any of the bombings.
Since Thursday alone, militants have seized parts of Ramadi and Fallujah, the two main cities in the Anbar province. On Saturday, they took control of the campus of Anbar University in Ramadi.
Parts of Ramadi have been held by anti-government tribesmen and insurgents since the start of the year. Overnight, gunmen fought their way past guards into the university, planting bombs behind them.
The militants eventually allowed students and teaching staff to leave, but remained in control of the campus late on Saturday, exchanging fire with security forces.
A professor trapped inside the physics department told Reuters some staff who live outside Ramadi had been spending the night at the university because it was the exam period.
“We heard intense gunfire at about 4:00 am. We thought it was the security forces coming to protect us but were surprised to see they were gunmen,” he told Reuters by telephone. “They forced us to go inside the rooms, and now we cannot leave.”
Sources in Ramadi hospital said they had received the bodies of a student and a policeman.
AFP reported that members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) were behind the university assault. Ramadi and Fallujah were overrun at the start of the year by ISIS fighters.
One of the guards at the university said he believed the militants’ real aim was to seize an area called Humaira behind the campus, which would allow them to set up supply lines between Ramadi and Fallujah.
“I think the militants will withdraw as their target was not the university. They came to stay in Humaira, and we know how important it is for them,” he said. “They want to be connected with their gunmen in Fallujah.”
Almost 480,000 people have been forced to leave their homes in Anbar over the past six months, according to the United Nations.
On Thursday, militants moved into the city of Samarra in the adjacent province of Salahuddin and briefly occupied a university there as well as two mosques, raising ISIS’s black banner until airstrikes forced them to retreat.
The following day, insurgents fought Iraqi security forces in the northern city of Mosul.
The head of Mosul morgue said the bodies of 59 civilians and 11 people had been brought in since Friday. Another source at the morgue said there were still corpses on the streets that could not be recovered because some districts of the city remained under militant control.