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Deadly blasts underscore tenuous security in Iraq's Anbar province

By Leila Fadel and Michael Hastings
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 8, 2010; A10

BAGHDAD -- Five explosions that targeted mostly law enforcement officials ripped through a city in Iraq's Anbar province Thursday, killing at least eight people and underscoring fears that the region's fragile security is deteriorating.

The homemade bombs struck the homes of the deputy police chief, two counterterrorism police officials and a lawyer in the small city of Hit, about 120 miles west of Baghdad, and injured at least 10. The attacks occurred one week after twin explosions killed at least 24 people in Anbar and ripped off the hand of provincial Gov. Qassim Mohammed Fahdawi. They also follow a series of about 40 assassination attempts in the province that have primarily targeted politicians, police officers, tribal chiefs and religious figures.

Anbar was considered an American model of success after Sunni tribal leaders and U.S. forces struck a deal to rein in insurgents in a place once known as a militant heartland. As American troops begin to withdraw from Iraq, the number of U.S. military enclaves in the western province has shrunk from 35 last year to five at present, and by August only three outposts will remain. American forces are largely confined to their base in Ramadi and no longer regularly accompany Iraqi security forces on operations.

Of late, a widespread and complicated power struggle has roiled the province, with elections scheduled for early March and multiple factions trying to assert control over the area, which makes up about one-third of Iraq.

Those forces include the newly elected provincial government, the central government in Baghdad and the traditional tribal leadership. At the same time, insurgents groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq have used the turmoil to reassert themselves.

After last week's bombings, police chief Tariq al-Assal -- widely viewed as ineffective -- was forced out and replaced with a temporary commander from the Iraqi army in Baghdad. Bahaa al-Azzawi was appointed directly by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, angering tribal chiefs, who saw the move as an affront to their power as well as that of the Sahwa fighters, members of the resistance who allied themselves with the U.S. military to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq but now feel abandoned by the government.

"If this weak government still exists after the election, we anticipate a disaster will happen in Anbar," said Sheik Mohammed Albuthaab, who leads an influential Anbar tribe but was left out of the consultations about the new police chief. "The provincial council spends its time traveling abroad to Turkey, Syria and Jordan, not living here."

It is unclear how long Azzawi will hold this post. The provincial council said it will select a permanent commander but did not specify when.

Assal, who had served as the head of Anbar police for two years, accused members of the provincial council of interfering in police matters, which he said led to the recent security lapses.

"Maybe the situation will be better now," he said in an interview. "How the government interferes with security is unacceptable."

Assal charged that last week's dual bombings were made easier because the 29 provincial council members have their own security details and convoys, which he said were not subject to his authority and could be easily infiltrated by insurgent groups.

He said he had urged Fahdawi, the governor, not to visit the scene of a car bombing last week outside the Anbar police headquarters in Ramadi. When the governor did arrive, with an entourage of bodyguards and vehicles, a man wearing a police uniform was able to sneak through the perimeter and blow himself up, injuring Fahdawi and killing a provincial council member, among others.

"The governor was playing Sherlock Holmes," Assal said. "How can I protect them when they don't follow my advice?"

Tribal leaders blamed Assal for the security lapses, saying that he was more interested in bringing investment to the province, not in security, and that the police were corrupt and the provincial government too weak to deal with al-Qaeda in Iraq.

"We don't need a jury system, we don't need a judge. The tribes will implement the punishments ourselves," Albuthaab said. "I would execute them all by my own hands. Anyone who is killing people deserves to be executed."

He said members of al-Qaeda in Iraq have been released from local prisons after the U.S. military turned them over to Iraqi authorities as part of the withdrawal agreement, an assertion supported by some Iraqi officials. Many of those former inmates have gone on to engage in attacks, Albuthaab said.

Despite the turmoil, all the parties want the Americans to stick to the pullout timetable.

Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said that although the violence has caused him some concern, the "security situation in Anbar isn't crumbling."

Hastings is a special correspondent. Special correspondents Aziz Alwan and Uthman al-Mokhtar contributed to this report.

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