BAGHDAD — A commander at a secluded terrorist training camp north of Baghdad unwittingly used a belt packed with explosives while conducting a demonstration early Monday for a group of militants, killing himself and 21 other members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, army and police officials said.
Nearly two dozen people were arrested, including wounded insurgents trying to get away from the scene, the Associated Press reported.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is an extremist group that recently broke with Al Qaeda. It has tried to position itself as the champion of Iraqi Sunnis angry at the government over what they see as efforts to marginalize them.
The accident happened on the same day that the speaker of the Iraqi Parliament escaped unhurt from a roadside bomb attack on his motorcade in the northern city of Mosul. That bombing targeted Osama al-Nujaifi, a prominent Sunni whom the militants consider a traitor. Six of his guards were wounded.
Iraqi citizens have long been accustomed to daily attacks on public markets, mosques, funerals, and even children’s soccer games, so for them the story of the fumbling militants was seen as a form of poetic justice, especially coming amid a protracted surge of violence led by the terrorist group.
Iraq is facing its worst violence in more than five years, with nearly 9,000 people killed last year and almost 1,000 people killed last month.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant evolved from its previous incarnation as Al Qaeda in Iraq, but recently Al Qaeda’s central leadership disavowed the group, which has taken on an increasingly important role in the fighting in Syria, as well as in Iraq.
Along with the increase in attacks on Iraqi civilians in Baghdad and elsewhere, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and other Sunni extremist groups have captured territory in western Anbar province, and for weeks they have controlled the city of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi, the provincial capital. Other areas of the country have also become strongholds of the Islamic State and Al Qaeda.
The explosion Monday took place at a camp in an orchard in the village of al-Jalam, a farming area in northeastern Salahuddin province that has been a stronghold of Al Qaeda close to the Sunni city of Samarra.
In addition to the 22 militants who were killed, 15 others were wounded at the compound, according to police and army officials.
Stores of other explosives, including at least 10 vehicles packed with explosives, ready for operations, were found at the camp, as well as heavy weapons, the officials said.
The militant commander who was conducting the training was not identified by name, but he was described by an Iraqi army officer as a prolific recruiter who was “able to kill the bad guys for once.”
The militants were attending a lesson on making car bombs and explosive belts when a glitch set off one of the devices. Security forces rushed to the area after hearing the thunderous blast and arrested 12 wounded militants along with another 10 trying to flee.
Authorities searched two houses and a garage in the orchard, finding seven car bombs as well as several explosive belts and roadside bombs. The cars did not have license plates. Bomb experts then started the work of defusing the devices.
Later Monday, a bomb exploded near a cafe in western Baghdad shortly after nightfall, killing three people and wounding 11 others, police said.