BAGHDAD — Twin explosions, including a suicide car bombing outside a government compound, killed at least 22 people Tuesday in a rare attack in the mainly Shiite south that signalled insurgents could be trying to expand their reach.
The violence comes as Iraqi officials are weighing whether to ask some of the roughly 47,000 U.S. forces still in the country to stay past this year. Many are concerned Iraqi forces aren’t ready to take over their own security, and al-Qaida-linked militants will try to take advantage of the vacuum.
Nobody immediately claimed responsibility for Tuesday’s strike in Diwaniyah, 80 miles (130 kilometres) south of Baghdad. But the fact that it was a suicide bomber targeting an Iraqi government building pointed to Sunni extremists such as al-Qaida in Iraq.
Shiite officials were quick to blame the terror network and remnants of Saddam Hussein’s ousted Baath Party.
The last major attacks in Diwaniyah were in 2009, when a bomb attached to a bus killed six people, and in 2007, when a roadside bomb killed seven police officers. But most of the past bloodshed in the area has been between Shiite militias fighting each other or the U.S. military before violence ebbed a few years ago.
“We did not expect that our province would be the next target. We thought we were safe here in the south, but it seems that al-Qaida and the Baathists want to destabilize the whole country,” said Thamir Naji, a member of the Qadasiyah provincial council, which includes Diwaniyah.
Provincial Gov. Salim Hussein Alwan said he was leaving his house in a heavily fortified compound when a suicide bomber rammed into a police checkpoint outside the surrounding high walls.
“I was in the garage preparing to leave when the attacker hit the police barrier outside and crashed with their vehicle,” Alwan told The Associated Press in a phone interview.
The suicide bomber also crashed into a police vehicle that had munitions inside, causing it to explode, said Alwan and Maj. Gen. Othman al-Ghanimy, who commands provincial military operations.
Naji said two suicide bombers detonated explosives-laden vehicles. A police officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to release the information, also said there were two suicide car bombers.
Conflicting accounts are common in the chaotic aftermath of such attacks.
Police and hospital officials who gave the death toll said at least 37 people also were wounded in the morning blasts, which went off when security forces were changing shifts.
U.S. forces, including an explosives ordnance team, were dispatched to assist the Iraqis, military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan said.
The entrance to the compound was destroyed and nearby houses collapsed, said Naji. He described a horrific scene with blood pooling on the ground and body parts thrown so far they landed on nearby houses.
Sunni insurgents have often targeted areas closer to former insurgent strongholds surrounding Baghdad, such as the city of Hillah. But it’s less common for Sunni militants to reach so deep into the Shiite heartland.
Iraqi officials said al-Qaida is trying to increase its presence in the area.
“The recent reports indicate that al-Qaida exists in all of the Middle Euphrates provinces, especially in Diwaniyah,” al-Ghanimy said, referring to the river that runs south through Iraq. “It is a message to prove that it exists and can reach its targets.”
Hamid al-Mutlaq, a Sunni lawmaker and member of the parliament’s security and defence committees, blamed the attack on the prime minister’s failure to fill the top security posts in the interior and defence ministries more than five months after he seated his second government.
“We have said before that there is a failure in the security forces and they are infiltrated,” al-Mutlaq said.