48 killed in suicide bombings targeting members of Iraq's Awakening councils

Twin suicide bombings killed scores of people, including dozens from an anti-al-Qaeda militia lining up to collect paychecks near a military base, Iraqi officials said.
By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 19, 2010

MAHMUDIYAH, IRAQ -- Two suicide bombings targeting members of local guard forces killed at least 48 people Sunday and heightened concern about the future of the groups as the number of U.S. troops in the country is reduced.

The deadliest attack occurred at about 7 a.m. outside an army base in Radwaniyah, a district southwest of Baghdad, where dozens of members of the groups, known as the Awakening councils, were lined up to collect their monthly salaries, officials said. The bombing killed at least 45 people and wounded nearly 50.

Shortly afterward, a militant stormed into a meeting of Awakening council leaders in al-Qaim, a town near the Syrian border, and detonated explosives, Iraqi security officials said. At least three people were killed.

A third explosion, in a village near Radwaniyah targeting a house that Iraqi soldiers were using as a temporary base, killed two officers and three soldiers, police said.

The attack in Radwaniyah, the deadliest in Iraq since the spring, incensed members of the Awakening councils. Leaders say the groups, once backed and financed by the U.S. military, are withering because of continuing insurgent attacks and the slow pace with which the government is moving them into civilian ministries.

"The Iraqi government is responsible," Khadum Feiad Mezel, 63, said outside the Mahmudiyah hospital, where most of the wounded were taken, as he awaited news about a nephew who had been at the blast site. "There is no other side we blame."

American officials have sought -- with mixed results -- to get the Iraqi government to care for the members of the Awakening councils, which were instrumental in turning the tide on a worsening war during the 2007 U.S. troop surge.

Sunday's attacks marked one of the deadliest days in Iraq this year, underscoring fears that insurgents are exploiting a period of political impasse. Iraqi lawmakers have been bickering since the March 7 parliamentary elections over who will form the next government, and many worry the stalemate could drag on for months.

Vice President Biden said Sunday morning that the political dispute will not affect U.S. plans to draw down its presence to 50,000 troops by the end of August.

"There is a government in place that is working," Biden said in an interview on ABC's "This Week." "Iraqi security is being provided by the Iraqis, with our assistance."

At the Mahmudiyah hospital Sunday afternoon, dozens of relatives waited for information about loved ones. Electricity from generators was insufficient to power most wings in the hospital, forcing doctors and nurses to work in sweltering rooms and to use flashlights to study charts.

The U.S. military established the armed Sunni groups in 2006 and 2007 in an effort to wean the Sunni insurgency off recruits and local support. The groups, which included thousands of former fighters, turned on al-Qaeda in Iraq, an insurgent organization that had come to control large parts of western Iraq and predominantly Sunni areas of Baghdad and surrounding villages.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq has killed scores of Awakening members, viewing them as traitors for siding with U.S. forces.

In 2008, the U.S. military stopped paying members of the Awakening councils, also known as the Sons of Iraq, after Iraqi officials agreed to give them salaries and civilian ministry jobs.

The government has not made good on its promise to move at least 20 percent of the Awakening members into police and army jobs. Former fighters with jobs in the civilian ministries complain they are often paid late -- if at all.

"I haven't been paid in four months," said Ayed Mohammed Bahar, 38, a former Awakening member in Radwaniyah who was offered a job at the Health Ministry in Baghdad. "Right now we are consumed by worry. We are relying on these salaries. We have nothing else but these jobs."

Special correspondent Aziz Alwan contributed to this report.

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