RAMADI, Iraq (Reuters) - Twin suicide bombs killed at least 27 and wounded more than 100 in Iraq’s Sunni Arab heartland on Wednesday and a roadside bomb killed seven pilgrims returning from a major Shi’ite Muslim religious festival.
The attacks underscored the tenacity of the insurgency despite a steep drop in overall violence and reflected Iraq’s vulnerability as it prepares for national polls in March and for local troops to take over from U.S. forces.
U.S. forces flew Qassim Mohammed, governor of Anbar province west of the Iraqi capital, to Baghdad for treatment after he was wounded in the attacks outside the provincial government headquarters in Ramadi, Anbar’s provincial capital.
Hospital and police sources said Sadoon Khraibit, a member of Anbar’s governing council, and its deputy police chief were wounded in the attacks, which left charred cars, their chassis buckled from the explosion, and bloody wreckage on the street.
Khraibit later died in hospital, police and his family said.
A separate, roadside bomb killed seven Iraqi pilgrims who were returning from a major Shi’ite Muslim religious festival, police said. At least 25 other pilgrims were wounded in the attack in Khalis, 80 km (50 miles) north of Baghdad.
The first attack in Ramadi, 100 km (60 miles) west of Baghdad, appeared to target the governor’s convoy as he made his way to work.
Police Colonel Jabbar Ajaj said a suicide bomber detonated explosives in a vehicle in the initial blast, followed shortly by a second suicide attack by a bomber on foot.
Mohammed was at the site of the blast inspecting the damage, a source at the Ramadi hospital reported, when the second attacker struck. State television Iraqiya said one of the bombers was a man working as a bodyguard for the governor.
“I was walking toward 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.
Many of the 105 people wounded were police.
At the Ramadi hospital, doctors crowded around injured policemen lying on stretchers. One of the wounded was a tiny baby, its diaper and white sweater dotted with blood.
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 threw their support behind grassroots guard units battling al Qaeda in 2006.
But a spate of recent attacks has raised fears violence will increase there ahead of the March elections. Many from Iraq’s Sunni minority, dominant under Saddam Hussein, fear the Shi’ite majority could edge them out of power for good.
Sunnis have not formed a united electoral bloc as they have in past elections, and have instead reached out across sectarian lines to form alliances with Shi’ites and others.
The move may reflect a strategic calculation about voters’ dissatisfaction with ruling religious parties, which many Iraqis blame for failing to rebuild Iraq properly, and a degree of disarray among the Sunni leadership.
Mohammed, a former government official who returned from abroad following provincial polls earlier this year, is an ally of influential Anbar tribal leader Ahmed Abu Risha.
The Anbar attacks follow a series of large-scale bombings in Baghdad, which Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has blamed on al Qaeda and Saddam’s Baath party.
“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.
The attacks highlight the security challenges Iraq faces as it takes on more responsibility for keeping its own people safe. U.S. President Barack Obama has promised to halt combat operations in Iraq by the end of August 2010, and all U.S. troops are required to withdraw by the end of 2011. (Additional reporting in Baghdad by Khalid al-Ansary; writing by Missy Ryan; editing by Janet Lawrence)