Iraq: Fear Grips Anbar After Bombings

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Double bombing follows wave of assassinations targeting leaders in western province.

By Uthman al-Mukhtar in Ramadi (ICR No. 318, 05-Jan-10)

Residents of Iraq's Anbar province are alarmed at the upsurge in violence in the region, which culminated in last week's bombings in Ramadi but also includes dozens of assassinations in recent months.

Two suicide bombers struck inside the provincial government compound on December 30, killing 30 people and injuring over 100, including Governor Qassim al-Fahdawi. A provincial council member and three senior security officials were among those killed in the blasts, security and hospital officials reported.

The group known as the Islamic State of Iraq, linked to al-Qaeda, claimed responsibility for the bombings on an extremist website. Officials in Ramadi blamed al-Qaeda for the attacks, but said a government committee was also investigating whether security forces were involved.

Local security officials say the latest bombings were similar to massive blasts that targeted government offices including the provincial council building in Baghdad last year.

The blasts were seen as a serious breach of security in a province that has been hailed as a success story. Anbar used to be a hotbed of al-Qaeda and other Sunni insurgents, whose battles with United States troops turned the provincial capital into a ghost town.

Security improved substantially when local Sunni tribes which had fought against US and Iraqi forces turned against extremist groups in 2007 and began participating in the political process.

The recent spate of violence in Anbar has left residents in a state of fear. As well as the bombings, numerous assassinations have shaken public confidence in the authorities' ability to manage the security situation.

"People want security, and any bomb reminds them of the horrific years they lived through," said Fadhel Ali, 59, who owns a transport company in Ramadi.

Police say 52 political, religious and community leaders have been killed in Anbar since mid-October.

Provincial council member Ifan al-Issawi told IWPR that one of his bodyguards was killed when a vehicle in his six-car convoy was blown up as he left the provincial council building on December 31.

"The police can't even protect themselves," said Noor Saadi, a 43-year-old housewife. "Al-Qaeda is making a comeback and hitting hard in the city, so I want to keep my son at home. His school could be close to the house of an Awakening leader who's being targeted by Al-Qaeda."

The Awakening councils were formed by tribal chiefs to combat extremists.

Musleh Ahmed, a 32-year-old teacher, said fear of further attacks has left locals too scared to return to their businesses or open their shops.

"Everyone in the city is still afraid," he said.

Major Rahim Zaban, a spokesman for Anbar's police force, described how the first of the two bombings took place. He said a truck packed with four tons of explosives rammed into Anbar's heavily fortified government compound at high speed. Zaban likened the compound, which houses the regional council, police headquarters, the US Provincial Reconstruction Team and other government offices to Baghdad's Green Zone.

A second suicide bomber wearing a police uniform struck 20 minutes later, according to a police source who requested anonymity.

This second bomb killed and wounded senior leaders and police who were assessing the damage from the first blast. Zaban said the bomber was three metres away from Governor Fahdawi, who lost a hand and suffered severe chest and back injuries in the attack.

Provincial council member Rabiya Nael said the governor was now in a stable condition in hospital.

Dozens of civilians, including women waiting to pick up their welfare benefits, were killed and wounded in the blasts. An American soldier and a civilian contractor were also injured, US military sources told IWPR.

In the aftermath of the bombings, the Iraqi army deployed thousands of troops in the streets and a state of emergency was declared in Anbar.

Provincial council head Jassim al-Halbusi said the region's police chief, Major-General Tareq al-Asal had been dismissed. He was replaced by Muhammad Rashid, a former officer in Saddam Hussein's army.

Asal told IWPR that he did not believe claims that the security forces had been infiltrated. Instead, he blamed politicians and officials for "interfering in our work and illegally appointing unqualified relatives to fill sensitive posts". He did not elaborate.

Anbar's tribal leaders have been accused of providing political favours and jobs to members of their tribes since obtaining political power.

The American military provided security at the compound after the blasts and is assisting in the forensic investigation, a US military spokesman said.

Anbar police said they are holding 30 people for questioning in connection with the attacks, the deadliest in the province in two years.

Police said the suspects were all former detainees at Bucca prison, a US detention centre that housed some of Iraq's most dangerous criminals, including Sunni insurgents. The prisoners were either released or transferred to Iraqi custody when the US closed the detention centre in September.

Despite the government's swift response, Yousif Khalaf, a Ramadi-based political analyst, said public confidence in the authorities is dwindling. Political conflicts, corruption and poor security are creating instability in the province, he said.

"The security forces need to prove to the public that they can keep things under control. They need to tell people who is behind the violence in Anbar, even if it is the ruling parties in the province," Khalaf said. "If they don't do that, they can forget about winning the elections. These attacks have made people extremely nervous about everything, including the elections."

The public is "deeply pessimistic", he added.

In the days after the blasts, Ramadi was struck by grief mixed with fear. Local shopkeepers said residents were preparing for the worst by stocking on up on food, fuel and water. Others had fled to neighbouring Syria or to Baghdad.

Amid heavy security, funeral tents and black banners with the victims' names were set up along one of Ramadi's busiest streets.

Nearly 400 protesters marched through central Ramadi three days after the bombings, demanding better security and the arrest of police and senior officials suspected of corruption. The march was organised by two political groups, the Anbar Salvation Council and the Iraqi Accord Front.

Mohammed al-Dulaimai, whose 19-year-old son, a policeman, was killed in the attacks, marched down the street, sobbing uncontrollably and beating his chest.

"I blame al-Qaeda for killing my son and all of the other sons in my neighbourhood," he said.

He also blamed security forces, saying, "The police became arrogant and lazy."

Ahmed al-Alwani, a Sunni member of the national parliament from the Iraqi Accord Front who also participated in the march, said Anbar residents had "given up their demands for good services and housing. They just want security."

Uthman al-Mukhtar is a freelance reporter and IWPR-trained journalist based in Fallujah. IWPR Iraq Editorial Manger Tiare Rath contributed to this report from Sulaimaniyah.