Bombings Strike Iraqi City That Was Model Of Peace

The U.S. military pacified some of the most violent areas of Iraq in part with money, paying tribal militias to turn back al-Qaida. Thanks to the militias, western cities have been relatively calm — until Sunday, when a triple car bombing struck Ramadi.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The U.S. military pacified parts of Iraq in part with money. The U.S. paid tribal militias to turn back al-Qaida in some of the most violent parts of the country. Thanks to those local militias, western Iraqi cities have been relatively calm until yesterday. That's when a triple car bomb struck the city of Ramadi.

NPR's Quil Lawrence is on the line from Baghdad. Quil, what happened yesterday?

QUIL LAWRENCE: Well, it was something typical of the times we'd seen in the past, the bad days in Ramadi and Fallujah. A sinister plan which involved several car bombs. The first one set off possibly inside the police station parking lot. And then as soon as rescue workers and policemen gathered to try and take care of the killed and wounded, another car bomb, or possibly a motorcycle bomb, drove into that crowd and exploded. The final death toll was 22 people, dozens wounded.

And then about an hour later, a seemingly coordinated bomb hit the gates of the main hospital in Ramadi, possibly trying to hit the wounded who were fleeing from that first scene. There were guards at the gate who prevented the car bomb from getting inside, but it exploded then at the gate killing two of those guards.

INSKEEP: Well, what was the situation just before those bombs started going off?

LAWRENCE: Well, I was in Ramadi about 24 hours before, actually in some of these spots - the police station - and there's been a slow, steady up tick in violence out there; assassinations, bombs, roadside bombs going off. It's interesting, these sheikhs, these tribal leaders who came together with American help and funding to defeat al-Qaida more or less in the province, seem now to be factionalizing.

And each one you go to visit has its own police detail, and it's not really clear whether that's the policemen from the central government or each person's private security force. As America has been pulling out - and they are about two-thirds reduced in the number of troops in Anbar now - there's a growing feeling of contention between these sheikhs, fighting over what resources are still there - and some very harsh language between them, saying, oh, he was never actually a real resistance fighter, all he was in it for was the money. A lot of acrimony out there in Ramadi.

INSKEEP: So, these are people who were effectively working for the Americans, and as it's seen that the Americans are on their way out, it's a question of who they're working for or whether they're working for themselves.

LAWRENCE: They were supported by the Americans. They took the initiative to turn against al-Qaida, but it was very clear they were receiving American funding, salaries for their fighters, as well as extremely lucrative contracts for reconstruction in Anbar province. Some of them were clearing in the mid-six figures on each of these contracts they did with the Americans. And it was a clearly a payment, a thank you for helping turn al-Qaida back in the province.

But now that the Americans are leaving, the money is drying up, resources are drying up and they're starting to look toward one another.

INSKEEP: Is there a single recognized leader of these militias, this awakening movement as it's called?

LAWRENCE: Well, the Abu Richa family, it would be the first one that springs to mind. And the sheikhs of that family - the lost a lot of family members fighting al-Qaida - some of them had been mentioned as possible, even presidential candidates in the next election.

But there's been a lot of discussion about this now. They were expected to turn out to join Prime Minister Maliki on his electoral slate. But when that electoral slate was announced this month, they weren't there. They weren't on the stage. And there's a lot of questions now about whether they didn't want to be seen, perhaps with a Shiite leader; whether they're getting pressure from some of the Sunni Arab Gulf states not to join a pro-Iranian government. Or we're not sure if there are still just backroom dealings going on and they'll announce a coalition later on or maybe even after the election.

INSKEEP: When you hear things like that, you begin to wonder what the political intent, if any, if it can be known, of this bombing might have been.

LAWRENCE: With all of these bombings there are questions in Iraq. There are still too many violent actors here to really be able to point a finger. In some ways it could have been one of the parties that wants to embarrass the current government and show that they aren't really delivering the security, which is the main plank of their campaign platform - is that they've pacified Iraq.

At the same time, there are a lot of people who have been released from detention as America has been transferring its custody of detainees to the Iraqis. A lot of people have been released. One police chief in Anbar told me that he thought the America prison camp in Camp Bucca in the south of the country was essentially a training camp for jihadis, and that some of them are now back on the streets in Anbar province.

INSKEEP: NPR's Quil Lawrence reporting today on a bombing that has been reported in the city of Ramadi. Quil, thanks very much.

LAWRENCE: Thank you, Steve.

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