BAGHDAD — Bombers struck Iraq's western Anbar province Wednesday in an apparent ambush of local leaders, killing at least 24 people and wounding 58 others, including the provincial governor whose goal is an economic renaissance in territory once controlled by insurgents.
The sophisticated attack in the provincial capital of Ramadi, about 70 miles west of Baghdad, was the deadliest in months for Anbar, and it raised fears that an uneasy peace that's prevailed in the province since Sunni tribes and security forces joined forces with U.S. troops to weaken al Qaida in Iraq, a mostly homegrown offshoot of the international terror network, may be unraveling.
Once most of the militants were killed or driven underground, the factions turned to internecine fighting for control of security forces and lucrative reconstruction contracts, and now those struggles appear to be escalating. The rival camps accuse one another of insurgent infiltration, corruption and cronyism, fragmenting the Sunni political bloc ahead of elections in March.
"The city is moving toward destruction because of the parties who rule the province, from the head of the Anbar provincial council to the Anbar police commander. The issue is a power struggle that's resulted in the return of terrorists to the city," said Sheikh Raed al Sabah, a prominent Ramadi tribal leader who helped to organize tribesmen into U.S.-backed Sunni militias as part of the "Awakening" movement.
With U.S. troops preparing to withdraw from Iraq, presidential elections scheduled for early March, the government and security forces dominated by Shiites and tensions between Sunni Arabs and Kurds still high, there also are growing fears that Anbar could again become a flashpoint for Sunni resentment, as it was after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led dictatorship.
At a minimum, Wednesday's attack is sure to exacerbate Anbar's tense political climate and deepen the frustration many residents express about a lack of trusted candidates in the approaching elections. Despite the efforts of the Anbar Gov. Qasim Mohammed al Fahdawi, an accomplished engineer and businessman, to lure investors to the devastated province, residents complain of widespread unemployment, poor basic services and security restrictions that hinder entrepreneurship.
"Iraq's future is far from settled," said a senior U.S. military official Wednesday, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he isn't authorized to talk to the news media. "The (Obama) administration is going to turn its back on the situation, I have no doubt, but we may be leaving behind an unholy mess that the Iranians and others may try to exploit."
"The city is a cake that's shared among the leaders of the Awakening and the tribal leaders at the expense of the powerless citizens. We don't know when the next car bomb will explode or the next roadside bomb will go off," said Rasoul Mohammed Salman, 23, a university student in Ramadi.
"I'm asking: Is there any al Qaida now?" Salman continued. "It's politics, and the sad thing about the city is how it's divided between the ordinary citizens who don't have even a meter of land in which to live, and the provincial council members who have villas in Syria, Amman and Lebanon."
Militants have targeted every Anbar governor since the invasion. Two previous governors were assassinated — one kidnapped and executed in captivity, the other killed in a car bombing after he left office.
Another former governor resigned and appeared in a videotape, begging insurgents for forgiveness in exchange for the release of his kidnapped sons. Still another claimed that he'd survived more than 30 assassination attempts while in office.
Wednesday's three-pronged attack began at about 10 a.m. when a car bomb exploded at a busy intersection outside the Anbar government and police compound in Ramadi. Policemen and taxi drivers were among the dead, authorities said.
The explosion occurred as Gov. Fahdawi prepared to leave the compound for a ground-breaking on a city project, said a member of his security detail, Iraqi Police Capt. Mazen al Dulaimy.
"As we were stepping out of the provincial office building, a car bomb exploded in the nearby intersection," Dulaimy said. "The governor was supposed to have gone to lay the foundation for a new project and, because of security concerns, even we didn't know where we were heading."
A suicide bomber wearing an explosive vest detonated near Fahdawi's entourage, killing Anbar's deputy police commander and other police officers, Anbar authorities said.
A third bomb exploded on another side of the compound at around the same time as the first two blasts, three Iraqi security officials said, suggesting that insurgents had surrounded the building in an apparent strategy to target officials leaving from various exits.
The governor insisted on visiting the blast scene over the repeated objections of his bodyguards, Dulaimy said.
Local TV stations initially reported that the governor was killed, but later amended their reports to say he'd suffered serious injuries. At least two provincial council members also were wounded.
"We thought the governor had died. We ran to him and found his face burned, and with other injuries all over his body," Dulaimy said, adding that the security detail took the governor to a nearby military base where he was treated by U.S. medics.
Authorities immediately imposed a citywide curfew and barred journalists from the scene, leading to widely varying reports about how many bombs had gone off, where they exploded and whether the walk-up bomber was an insurgent disguised as a policeman or a member of the governor's security detail.
Jassim al Halbusi, the head of the Anbar Provincial Council, told an Anbar television channel that the governor was out of critical condition and had been transported to Baghdad for treatment of broken bones. Halbusi said the attacks were intended to derail economic initiatives, the cornerstone of the governor's agenda.
(Special correspondent Naji reported from Fallujah. Allam reported from Baghdad. Special correspondent Mohammed al Dulaimy contributed.)
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