BAGHDAD — An explosion ripped through a gathering of U.S military officials and allied Sunni Muslim tribesmen Thursday, killing three Marines, two interpreters and 20 Iraqis in the rural western town of Karmah, U.S. and Iraqi authorities said.
The blast, which Iraqi police blamed on a suicide bomber, killed some of the U.S. military's most dedicated proxies in the fight against the militant group al Qaida in Iraq: the mayor, two prominent sheiks and their sons, and another sheik and his brother. All supported or belonged to the local "awakening council," one of the U.S.-backed militias that have taken up arms against al Qaida in Iraq.
Surviving tribesmen said the attack only made them more defiant in the effort to drive Sunni extremists from Anbar province, the longtime militant fiefdom that had become a showpiece for U.S. success against the insurgency.
"The awakening council is strong and its presence will not be erased," said Abdul Rahman al Jumeili, a senior awakening leader in Karmah. "If one sheik is killed, his son will take over. If the son is killed, the cousin will take over. The security process is moving forward and it will not be stopped. And we will not be stopped."
The timing of the bombing was a harsh blow for Anbar, where the U.S. military had been just days away from handing over security responsibility to Iraqis. That ceremony now has been postponed indefinitely, Iraqi officials said after talks with the Marines. The military didn't identify the Marine casualties; witnesses said senior American commanders in Anbar had been at the meeting.
Also on Thursday, U.S. military officials said a rocket-propelled grenade attack followed by a powerful car bomb killed at least 18 Iraqis and wounded 80 in the northern city of Mosul, where al Qaida in Iraq fighters are thought to be concentrated.
Iraqi authorities said the attack was an apparent assassination attempt on Nineveh Gov. Duraid Kashmoula, who was in the area at the time but escaped unharmed. Iraqi police said the grenade attack and car bombing targeted the governor's convoy route but instead killed or wounded dozens of Iraqis who were shopping in a nearby marketplace.
U.S. officials said the bombing occurred close to Kashmoula's headquarters in west Mosul but that it was unclear whether it was an assassination attempt.
"Though the governor was in the vicinity following the RPG attack, there is no indication he was the target," said Lt. Col. Robert Molinari, a military spokesman in Mosul. Molinari added that the attack "fits the profile" of al Qaida-related extremists.
With the deaths of the Marines, the number of U.S. service members killed in Iraq so far this month totals at least 29, one of the bloodiest stretches in months. Three U.S. civilian employees and more than 50 Iraqis have died in the same period. At least 38 Iraqis were killed Thursday alone.
Sunni insurgents and Shiite Muslim militiamen are being blamed for the recent bloodshed in and around municipal buildings, perhaps an indication that radicals from both sects are working to undo the shaky successes of the U.S. troop buildup. The attacks also undercut the Iraqi government's efforts to assert more control over security and to build on popularity gains after widely hailed offensives in Baghdad and the Shiite south.
"The general atmosphere is that they are out: the militias and al Qaida and the affiliated gangs," said Abdul Kareem Khalaf, a spokesman for the Iraqi Interior Ministry. "Can I say they are completely finished? No, that would be unrealistic, but now they are no more than outlaw gangs in the throes of death. Formerly, whole institutions would fall within minutes as a result of their activities, but now they need to really plan and go to great lengths to find a weak link in our security."
The bombing in Karmah occurred at about 11 a.m. in a ceremonial tent where tribesmen and Marines had met before, police and survivors said. The visiting Marines and the local leaders, many of whom had brought along their sons and other relatives, had gathered around long tables.
Abdulsalam Mohammed, one of the leading tribal leaders in the Karmah area, said he was in the tent when someone shouted, "Suicide bomber!" He said he never saw the reported attacker before the explosion occurred. Mohammed, whose right shoulder was broken and left arm pocked with shrapnel, spoke from his hospital bed in Fallujah, where many of the wounded were taken.
Jumeili, the senior awakening official, said he'd planned to attend the meeting, but had sent two of his relatives instead because he had other commitments. Both men died in the bombing. Jumeili's voice was tinged with fury as he described how anti-American extremists effectively were working against the goal of hastening the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
"Unfortunately, this will only lengthen the presence of the occupation and will keep the occupiers in our neighborhoods," Jumeili said. "This makes us angry because we want them to leave as quickly as possible."
(Allam reported from Baghdad. McClatchy special correspondent Naji reported from Karmah. Special correspondents Sahar Issa in Baghdad and Mahdi al Dulaimy in Karmah contributed to this article.)