Iraq's Anbar bombings only latest sign of trouble

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 11, 2009 

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The bombers who attacked the western Iraqi city of Ramadi on Sunday seemed determined to make sure that none of their targets survived.

First, they bombed a crowded parking lot outside the Anbar provincial government's headquarters. Seven minutes later, they detonated a car bomb aimed at the rescue workers. An hour later, a third bomb exploded outside the hospital where survivors were receiving treatment.

By the end of the day, at least 23 people, mostly civilians, were dead and more than 80 were wounded in the attacks - two parked-car bombs and a suicide bombing, according to local authorities.

The coordinated assault heightened fears among Iraqi officials and residents who've warned in recent months that Islamist extremists are trying to retake the Sunni Muslim territories that they lost in Anbar, the province that was overrun with insurgents until U.S. forces and their local tribal allies drove them out in late 2007.

The Sunday bombings are only the latest sign of a stepped-up campaign to undermine Anbar security forces and the political process. The twin car bombings at midday outside the government compound in Ramadi coincided with a visit from a committee sent by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki to check on the disbanding of U.S.-allied Sunni militias that were instrumental in the fight against al Qaida in Iraq, said Efan Saadoun, head of the security committee for the provincial council. The Iraqi government seeks to absorb 20 percent of the Sunni fighters into Iraqi armed forces.

Police said the third explosion at about 1:20 p.m. was caused by a suicide bomber who tried to enter Ramadi General Hospital, but was stopped by guards. Two guards and at least one civilian were killed when the bomber detonated outside the gate, police said.

Police commanders announced an open-ended curfew Sunday for Anbar's two major cities, Ramadi and Fallujah. They also cracked down on journalists trying to cover the blasts. The Baghdad-based Journalistic Freedoms Observatory, an independent media advocacy group, said in a statement that police beat reporters and destroyed or confiscated video footage in the aftermath of the bombings.

With little or no popular support in Anbar now, residents said, the insurgents appear to be sending a message that local security forces have failed to thwart their operations in the restive areas in and around Ramadi, the provincial capital about 70 miles west of Baghdad. U.S. combat operations to rout insurgents from Anbar led to some of the fiercest battles and highest American casualties of the war.

Since June 30, when a U.S.-Iraqi security pact took effect, Iraqi commanders have taken charge of efforts to protect Anbar ahead of elections scheduled for January. It's no easy task in a vast area whose borders with Syria, Saudi Arabia and Jordan have been the main entry points for foreign fighters.

"Who is responsible for this massacre? Where are the security forces? Where is the work of the police?" shouted Abdel Moneim Ahmed, 42, a teacher whose face and torso were injured by flying glass. "What did elections do for us? That is what people ask. We will not participate in their upcoming elections. It will be another failure."

Minutes after the bombings Sunday, Anbar politicians traded accusations about the infiltration of foreign fighters and the failure of security commanders to gather intelligence and prevent such attacks. The ability of local hospitals to handle mass-casualty bombings also was called into question: wards overflowed at Ramadi General Hospital and mosques throughout the city immediately began blood drives because doctors didn't have enough on hand to treat the wounded.

"I say that General Tariq should be entered into the Guinness Book of World Records for the highest number of security breaches," said Sheikh Hikmat Jassim, the deputy governor, criticizing Anbar Police Chief Tariq al Asal.

Other members of the provincial government said the blame is better aimed at intelligence authorities for failing to uncover and monitor insurgent cells. The political bickering doesn't bode well for Sunni chances in the coming elections; Sunni political blocs are severely fragmented and so far haven't formed an electoral slate that could pose a serious challenge to their Shiite counterparts.

Meanwhile, insurgents are growing more brazen. This summer, gunmen set up an illegal checkpoint in broad daylight and gave passersby DVDs of their attacks and pamphlets that urged tribes and security forces to repent for their "collaboration" with the U.S. military. Last month, insurgent bombings flattened the houses of several police officers and U.S.-allied tribal leaders. Sporadic bombings have forced Anbar leaders to impose curfews that make life even harder for ordinary residents.

(Al Dulaimy reported from Baghdad; Naji reported from Fallujah. They are special correspondents for McClatchy.)

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