RAMADI, Iraq, (Reuters) – Twin suicide bombs killed at least 20 in western Iraq on Wednesday in an attack that appeared to target the governor of Anbar province and other senior officials in Iraq’s Sunni Arab heartland.
Al-Iraqiya state television initially reported that Qassim Mohammed, governor of the mainly Sunni Arab province west of Baghdad, was killed in the attacks near the provincial government headquarters in Ramadi, Anbar’s provincial capital.
But Deputy Governor Hikmet Khalaf later said in a phone call to Reuters that Mohammed was still alive and had been flown to Baghdad for medical treatment.
Jassim Mohammed, who heads the Anbar provincial council, also said the governor was alive. State TV later ran a similar report from the provincial council head.
State TV also said a member of the provincial council and the deputy police commander had been killed in the blasts.
Police in Ramadi said the attacks took place in quick succession in the centre of the city, 100 km (60 miles) west of Baghdad. Many of those wounded were from Iraqi security forces.
Police Colonel Jabbar Ajaj said the first blast, in which a suicide bomber detonated explosives in a vehicle, was followed shortly afterwards by a second suicide attack, this time carried out by a bomber on foot.
A source at the hospital said that after the first attack took place, the governor came out from his nearby office to inspect the damage. Then the second attacker struck.
After the attacks, pools of blood and charred vehicles stood near the heavily fortified provincial building.
One of the attackers was a man working as a bodyguard for the governor, Iraqiya reported. Police said that Mohammed seemed to be the target of at least one of the attacks.
“I was walking towards some shops right next to the provincial government compound when a huge explosion happened. I flew through the air, and I woke up in the hospital,” said Ahmed Mahmoud, a 30-year-old Ramadi resident.
Anbar, the heart of Iraq’s Sunni Islamist insurgency following the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein, became a relatively secure place after local tribal leaders began to support grassroots guard units battling al Qaeda in 2006.
But a spate of suicide attacks in recent months has raised fears that violence will increase further ahead of Iraq’s general elections in March.
Many from Iraq’s Sunni minority, dominant under fellow Sunni Arab Saddam Hussein, fear the country’s Shi’ite majority could edge them out of power for good.
“Al Qaeda and other groups are trying to destabilize security in the province ahead of the elections. Unless the police does its job well, these kind of challenges are going to become even bigger,” said Anbar council head Jassim Mohammed.
U.S. and Iraqi forces, together with the local guard units that sprang up in Anbar and then spread across Iraq, drove Sunni Islamist al Qaeda out of many parts of Iraq, but it remains active in some areas, like Baghdad and northern Mosul.