Ramadi attacks: Is Iraq heading for more sectarian bloodshed?

The two blasts hit government buildings in Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar Province, on Wednesday, leaving more than 20 people dead and nearly 60 people injured. Officials blame Al Qaeda in Iraq for the attacks.

An Iraqi policeman inspects the site of a bombing in Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday.

One of the largest coordinated bombings to hit Iraq in recent months shook the central city of Ramadi on Wednesday morning. The two blasts hit government buildings in the provincial capital of Anbar Province, leaving more than 20 people dead and nearly 60 people injured.

The governor of Anbar was among those wounded in the attack, and security officials say he may have been the bombers’ primary target. Officials are blaming Al Qaeda in Iraq for the attack.

The bombings in Ramadi underscore the increasing instability in Iraq as the US continues to reduce its military presence and the nation prepares for national elections in March. Many of the sectarian issues that divided Iraq during the worst of the fighting in 2006 and 2007 continue to plague the fledging government, which many Iraqis still perceive as too heavily dominated by a Shiite majority.

“The whole security situation is very fragile,” says Ahmad Moussalli, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. He adds that violence is likely to continue as long as rival sectarian groups – namely the Sunnis and Shiites – perceive uneven government influence. “You can expect the return of rebels, revolutionaries, or Al Qaeda groups to try to rebalance the power. … I think Iraq will take a more sectarian turn and this is only the tip of the iceberg.”

Wednesday’s bombing also renewed concerns about Iraq’s security forces. Throughout the war, there have been problems with militants infiltrating Army and police units, and security officials say that this latest suicide bombing was carried out by a man wearing an Iraqi Army uniform.

Following the bombing, Hekmat Khalaf Zaidan, deputy governor of Anbar Province, told Agence France-Presse, “I am astonished by the weakness of the security forces, which have been infiltrated.”

Raising further alarm, on Tuesday five members of the Sons of Iraq (SOI) community policing group were murdered at a checkpoint 30 miles north of Baghdad. One of the guards was reportedly beheaded, a common practice among Al Qaeda in Iraq. The predominately Sunni SOI, which started in Anbar Province, was hailed as a critical component to decreasing violence in Iraq. The Associated Press reports that in the past two years, US military officials say 212 SOI leaders have been killed by Al Qaeda.

In recent months, Iraq has seen an uptick in high-profile attacks reminiscent of the bloodiest days of the conflict. Many analysts attribute the rise to militant groups trying to destabilize the country prior to the March elections. Current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will be up for reelection, but there are concerns that the current election law may hurt the chances of Sunni groups, who already complain about underrepresentation.

“If the elections can pass successfully, without any major disputes, uncertainties, or inconsistencies, then that will be a very positive point and that will undermine the groups that are trying to carry out these attacks,” says Sajjan Gohel, director for international security at the Asia-Pacific Foundation, an independent security and intelligence think tank in London. Still, “we are going to see an upsurge in violence in the build up to March, I don’t think we should be in any doubt about it.”

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