BAGHDAD // A double suicide bombing in Ramadi yesterday, which killed at least 23 people and wounded the governor of Anbar province, has added to fears of an al Qa'eda revival in what was once an insurgent stronghold. The first attacker detonated a car bomb at a checkpoint in central Ramadi, near the governorate's head offices, yesterday morning. Half an hour later, when the area was crowded with emergency response teams and being visited by officials, a militant wearing a suicide bomb vest triggered his explosives.
Qassim Mohammed Abid, the provincial governor, suffered injuries to his head and chest in the second blast and was flown to Baghdad, 100km to the east, for treatment. Senior security officials, including the deputy police chief, were among 13 police officers killed. A further 57 people were injured, according to hospital staff. Al Qa'eda-inspired extremists were blamed for the attacks. Saleh al Hadithi, a senior sheikh from western Ramadi, said that after suffering years of setbacks, the militants had regrouped and were becoming more powerful and more sophisticated.
"The situation in Anbar is worse than many people in the government want to acknowledge," he said in a telephone interview. "There are reports it is peaceful, but it isn't. "Al Qa'eda still has weapons and manpower, and it has these new tactics where it sets off one bomb and then waits for the police and army to arrive before setting off the second." Mr al Hadithi, a Sahwa Council leader, said tribal fighters who had once aligned with al Qa'eda, only to be turned against them under the US-funded Sahwa (or Awakening) scheme, were again turning back to the Islamic militants.
"The regrowth of al Qa'eda was predictable enough," he said. "Many of the people in the Sahwa were fighting against the extremists because they were paid by the Americans. "The government promised them jobs, but the truth is that most are now unemployed and the payments have been stopping. That makes it much easier for al Qa'eda to find recruits." He predicted the situation would further deteriorate in coming weeks and months, as more Sahwa fighters became disaffected. "Al Qa'eda will have an easier job to find allies and whatever the government is doing to fill the hole in security [left by the winding down of the Sahwa scheme] is not enough."
The Anbar deputy governor, Hekmat Khalaf Zaidan, told Agence France-Presse that government forces had been complicit in the attacks. "I am astonished by the weakness of the security forces, which have been infiltrated," he said. Qais Abdullah, a journalist working in Ramadi, said the growing strength of al Qa'eda there in recent months had been ignored by many officials, while those who issued warnings were accused of scaremongering or of trying to frighten away already cautious contractors and investors.
"For six months we have seen al Qa'eda making more threats," Mr Abdullah said. "They threatened to bomb the city university if Shiite students were allowed to attend, and they issued a fatwa that put a bounty on the head of any journalist." Mr Abdullah said reduced funding to the Sahwa councils appeared to be contributing to a fraying security situation. "That has left plenty of people angry and with a sense that their rights are not being respected.
"The Sahwa did play a big role in stopping the insurgents and now they are upset with the government over jobs and pay." Anbar province was the scene of some of the heaviest fighting between US and Iraqi government troops and radical insurgents after the 2003 invasion. A critical turning point in the conflict came when Iraqi tribes, who had worked alongside al Qa'eda, grew tired of the movement's ultra-hardline religious views and strategy of targeting civilians, in particular Shiites, to ignite a sectarian war.
The tribes cut ties with al Qa'eda and, with US financial backing, went to war against their former allies. They quickly scored remarkable successes, but critics of the scheme cautioned security gains would be at risk if the money dried up. In October 2008 the United States military passed responsibility for paying the Sahwa councils over to the Iraqi government, which promised to find the tribal fighters jobs or to continue payments.
Officials in Baghdad say they have honoured their part of the deal, but there has been widespread dissatisfaction among the Sahwa leaders, who once headed a nationwide force of 93,000. "The situation is going to get worse here," Mr Abdullah said. "The conditions are ready for al Qa'eda to keep getting stronger and I think they will keep on attacking until the elections [in March]. Until then, it is getting too dangerous to work properly [as a journalist] here."
In a second attack yesterday, seven people were killed and 20 others were wounded when an explosion hit a Shiite procession outside of Baquba, in Diyala province, another former stronghold of Islamic militants in Iraq. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org