BAGHDAD — Bombers struck Iraq's western Anbar province Wednesday in an apparent ambush of local leaders, killing at least 24 people and wounding 58 others, including the provincial governor whose goal was an economic renaissance in a territory once controlled by insurgents.
The sophisticated attack in the provincial capital of Ramadi, about 70 miles west of Baghdad, was the deadliest in months for Anbar, and it raised fears that an uneasy peace that's prevailed in the province since Sunni tribes and security forces joined forces with U.S. troops to weaken al-Qaida in Iraq, a mostly homegrown offshoot of the international terrorist network, may be unraveling.
Once most of the militants were killed or driven underground, the factions turned to violent fighting for control of security forces and lucrative reconstruction contracts, and now those struggles appear to be escalating. The rival camps accuse one another of insurgent infiltration, corruption and cronyism, fragmenting the Sunni political bloc ahead of elections in March.
"The city is moving toward destruction because of the parties who rule the province, from the head of the Anbar provincial council to the Anbar police commander. The issue is a power struggle that's resulted in the return of terrorists to the city," said Sheikh Raed al Sabah, a prominent Ramadi tribal leader who helped to organize tribesmen into U.S.-backed Sunni militias as part of the "Awakening" movement.
With U.S. troops preparing to withdraw from Iraq, presidential elections scheduled for early March, the government and security forces dominated by Shiites and tensions between Sunni Arabs and Kurds still high, there also are growing fears that Anbar could again become a flashpoint for Sunni resentment, as it was after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led dictatorship.
At a minimum, Wednesday's attack is sure to exacerbate Anbar's tense political climate and deepen the frustration many residents express about a lack of trusted candidates in the approaching elections. Despite the efforts of the Anbar Gov. Qasim Mohammed al Fahdawi, an accomplished engineer and businessman, to lure investors to the devastated province, residents complain of widespread unemployment, poor basic services and security restrictions that hinder entrepreneurship.