RAMADI, Iraq (Reuters) – A suicide bomber killed at least 11 people and wounded 21 others on Thursday in Iraq’s increasingly turbulent western Anbar province, a senior Iraqi army official and police said.
The blast comes weeks before a March 7 parliamentary vote that al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq has threatened to derail by military means, stoking fears of more violence to come as politicians and candidates gear up for the election.
A restaurant worker in Ramadi, capital of Anbar province, said that bodies littered the scene, close to a complex housing provincial government buildings. Blood stained the ground, and gutted police and army vehicles smoldered nearby.
“A suicide bomber … attacked the checkpoint of the police and army close to our restaurant. Some of them were killed. I saw around five or six bodies, and helped carry them to cars going to hospital,” worker Hamid Ali said.
Once a safe-haven for Sunni Islamist insurgent groups such as al Qaeda, the mainly Sunni province had been relatively calm after tribal leaders turned on militants there from late 2006 and formed anti-insurgent militias in 2007 with U.S. backing.
However, a series of blasts in the desert province, the nation’s largest, in recent months has shattered the calm in the run up to the national vote, seen as a crucial test as Iraq emerges from decades of dictatorship, war and economic decline.
Suicide bombers killed more than 25 people in Ramadi, 100 km (60 miles) west of Baghdad, on December 30 in attacks that targeted Anbar’s governor, Qassim Mohammed, seriously wounding him.
Sunni Muslims largely boycotted a parliamentary election in 2005, helping fuel an insurgency. Many Sunni candidates plan to participate in the upcoming ballot although a ban on some top Sunni politicians for alleged links to Saddam Hussein’s outlawed Baath party has fanned sectarian tensions.
Iraqi and U.S. officials hope the election will solidify the country’s young democracy before a U.S. military withdrawal due by the end of 2011, by drawing former insurgents and militias into the political process.