A suicide bomber assassinated a key leader of American-backed militia forces in a Sunni stronghold of Baghdad on Monday morning, the latest attack on nationalist Sunnis who have recently allied themselves with American troops. That attack, and a second bomb that exploded minutes later, killed at least 14 and wounded another 18 in total, a Ministry of Interior official said.
The killing of the militia leader, Col. Riyadh al-Samarrai, on the fringes of north Baghdad’s Adhamiyah district, was one of the most significant attacks so far on leaders of former Sunni insurgents who have banded into militias, known as Awakening groups, to fight extremist militants.
Colonel Samarrai was one of the leaders of the Sunni Awakening movement in Adhamiyah, and was also a close aide and a security adviser to the head of the Sunni Endowment, which oversees Iraq’s Sunni mosques and is one of the most powerful Sunni institutions in Iraq.
According to witnesses and Awakening officials, the assassin, who they said may have been known to Colonel Samarrai, waited patiently at the offices of the Sunni Endowment until his target emerged from a meeting. The killer then walked up, tried to embrace Colonel Samarrai, and pulled the trigger on his explosive vest or belt.
Minutes later, as onlookers rushed to the scene, a car bomb exploded, killing several more people and damaging two trucks that were being loaded with victims of the first bombing to take them to the hospital.
The timing and execution of the twin blasts suggested that the attack was very well planned and coordinated. The perpetrators were able to plant a car bomb despite the heavy presence of Awakening fighters in the area.
For several hours, relatives of the dead and wounded were prevented from entering the hospital in Adhamiyah where several of the corpses and wounded were taken because of fears that another bomber would get through.
They stood outside, sobbing, and trying to keep warm in the cold weather after they had rushed to the hospital without time to grab a coat or heavy clothing.
Awakening fighters and American troops quickly locked down the area around the scene of the assassination.
“The martyrdom of Colonel Riyadh is a big loss,” said Ayad Saad, an Awakening fighter in Adhamiyah. “Al Qaeda is still there actively targeting us, and the proof is what happened today.”
If Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a mostly homegrown insurgent group whose members are overwhelmingly Iraqi but which American military officials believe has foreign leadership, was behind the assassination, it would be the latest indication that the organization is trying to show that it can get to any Sunni who has recently thrown in his lot with American forces.
Overall levels of violence have fallen significantly in Baghdad and in much of central and western Iraq in recent months. A principal reason is that thousands of Sunni militants who used to fight American forces have renounced their ties to insurgents and have been placed on the American military’s payroll in the Awakening groups.
Standing guard in onetime insurgent strongholds like Adhamiyah, they are organized into groups known as Awakening Councils or Concerned Local Citizens that are working hand-in-hand with American ground troops.
Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia has been blamed for a rising series of attacks on Awakening fighters and leaders in recent weeks.
Late last month, Osama bin Laden denounced the Awakening movement as a plot “hatched by the Zionist-Crusader alliance” to “steal the fruit of blessed jihad” in Iraq.