At approximately 19:00 on 3 February, suspected IS gunmen armed with light weapons targeted a bus transporting 10 Iranian pilgrims in Canal 14 area, located southeast of Balad City in southern Salah ad Din Province. The bus was targeted as the pilgrims was travelling to Sayyid Mohammed Shrine. Nine individuals were wounded including an Iraqi driver, with one Iranian individual subsequently succumbing to his wounds. The specific area affected was located approximately 5km northeast of one ISF checkpoint along Highway 1 and 1.5km south of another ISF outpost near the shrine. The insurgents skillfully exploited heavy vegetation and the cover of darkness for the ambush.
In response to this incident, the 43rd PMF Brigade and other security forces cordoned off the location and conducted a search operation. No significant effects were reported, with heightened security postures lifted the following morning. Security operations are expected to be promoted in surrounding areas over the near-term, with some potential for associated route disruptions. Reports of inflated security successes also remain possible in accordance with historic reporting patterns for the area.
Although not extremely effective in terms of fatalities, the 3 February incident formed another example of enduring IS intent to target Shi’a religious pilgrims in active environments of the Northern Region on an intermittent basis. Attacks affecting Iranian citizens can provoke relevant international security sensitivities. Interestingly, on the night of 12 August 2017, an IED attack was conducted against Shi’a pilgrims travelling towards the same shrine involved in the latest incident. 11 individuals were wounded. The 3 February incident was preceded by other recent IS-authored direct fire incidents in suburbs of Balad and Samarra. Each of these events demonstrated the persistent nature of associated threats despite fluctuations in activity levels.