BAGHDAD // Suicide bombers attacked local administration offices in Ramadi yesterday, killing as many as 17 people, in the first major al Qa'eda assault in Iraq since the new government was named last week.
The first bomb, a minibus loaded with explosives, detonated in the centre of the city, 100 kilometres west of Baghdad yesterday morning. As the emergency services responded, and bystanders gathered to watch, a man in a police uniform wearing a suicide vest entered the crowd and triggered a second bomb, according to police officials.
Initial casualty reports gave conflicting tolls of the dead and injured, something typical in the confused aftermath of attacks in Iraq. Police sources said at least 17 people had died, most of them security officers, with another 47 wounded.
Qassim Mohammed, the governor of Anbar province - Ramadi is the provincial capital - had earlier said seven were killed and 28 wounded. A higher toll of 14 dead and more than 50 wounded was, however, given by hospital officials. The Reuters news agency quoted an unnamed doctor as saying some of the wounded were in a "serious" condition.
Although no group had claimed responsibility for the blasts, al Qa'eda in Iraq was quickly and widely blamed by the security services and local politicians. Little more than two weeks ago the same compound was attacked, also in a twin bombing, an assault that killed 13 people and wounded dozens more.
A security source in Anbar said defensive measures had been tightened in the wake of that earlier attack, but that militants had successfully infiltrated police and army units in Ramadi, enabling them to continue operations in the city.
"We have a strong security plan in Ramadi but al Qa'eda has broken it because they have people inside the security services," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to talk to the media. "There are people inside the army and police working for al Qa'eda."
He said a "new plan" was now being drawn up to improve security at the government compound.
Riyad Tikriti, an independent political analyst based in Salahaddin province, said militant groups had infiltrated security forces across the country, and that radical action was needed to address the problem.
"We need to stop having locally recruited police," he said. "The police force in Ramadi should be recruited from another province, that is the only way to deal with this and to stop al Qa'eda getting access inside the security forces."
While the army is largely recruited on a national basis, with soldiers from different provinces deployed to other areas, police units are recruited from the places they work in. That gives them the advantage of local knowledge but can make them more vulnerable to infiltration by locally based insurgent sympathisers.
Al Qa'eda in Iraq held a strong influence over Anbar province, until local tribes, which had fought alongside the militants following the 2003 US-led invasion, switched sides and, funded by the American military, turned their guns on their former allies.
This so-called Awakening movement - Sahwa in Arabic - was successful in rolling back the presence of al Qa'eda across much of the country between 2005 and 2010. But, with US troops withdrawing and the tribal Sahwa councils being wound down by the Iraqi government, there are concerns that Anbar is, once more, becoming a fertile recruiting ground for violent extremists opposed to the government and its US backers.
"There are al Qa'eda sympathisers working in the police in Anbar, and in Salahaddin, as well as other places," said Mr Tikriti, the political analyst.
"They also know the areas well and can put real pressure on the security services in these provinces. They know where officers' families live, so they are in a position to threaten and to get [security personnel] to help them or turn a blind eye to their activities.
"If police were recruited from different provinces, that leverage would disappear and it would be much harder for militants to infiltrate security units."
In addition to the Ramadi bombings, gunmen using silenced weapons wounded two police officers in Baghdad yesterday, and a bomb exploded in Dujail, 50km north of the capital.
There have been more than a dozen similar, small scale but deadly attacks in Iraq over the Christmas period.