BAGHDAD Militants assassinated two key leaders of U.S.-backed neighborhood militias in northern Baghdad over the past two days, highlighting the militants' strategy of eliminating militia commanders who have embraced partnerships with U.S. forces but who themselves remain vulnerable to attack.
On Monday morning, a suicide bomber on foot killed Col. Riyadh al-Samarrai, a founder of the Sunni Awakening Council in Adhamiya, a Sunni stronghold that until recently was a haven for insurgents. The Awakening Councils are groups of Sunni and in come cases Shiite fighters who have renounced ties to insurgents and are on the payroll of the U.S. military, standing guard in areas that not long ago were controlled by militants.
The bomber struck at the offices of the Sunni Endowment, one of the most powerful Sunni institutions in Iraq and an influential backer of the new Sunni alliances with U.S. forces. The suicide blast and a nearly simultaneous car bombing just yards away killed 14 people and wounded 18 others.
On Sunday, gunmen in a car and brandishing pistols with silencers killed a founder of the Awakening movement in Shaab, Ismael Abbas, according to an Interior Ministry official. Shaab is a large and predominantly Shiite district in northern Baghdad that is near Adhamiya, the Sunni enclave. Over the weekend, militants distributed leaflets in Shaab warning that Awakening members would be killed for "protecting" the Americans.
The killings punctuated a wave of violence that has unfolded in the capital and left more than 30 people dead over the past two days, chipping away at the relative lull the city enjoyed late last year.
On Monday alone there were eight other bombings in addition to the Adhamiya attacks that killed at least four people and wounded 23. Gunmen abducted eight Awakening guards in Shaab, and over the past two days the police discovered the bodies of 13 men strewn about the city who all appeared to have been killed at close range
The Baghdad assassinations come amid rising attacks on Awakening Council members fighters whose presence in volatile neighborhoods has been credited with helping bring about a sharp decline in violence. In another such assassination, gunmen on Sunday burst into the home of an Awakening leader in the volatile city of Baquba, north of Baghdad, killing him and his wife, according to the police in Diyala province.
"The suicide attacks will go on, because the enemy does exist and no one can neglect this truth," said Bassim al-Azawi, a senior member of the Adhamiya Awakening Council. He vowed that despite the void created by Samarrai's death, the "work of the Awakening will go on."
While there is no concrete evidence pointing to who is carrying out the attacks, the string of assassinations has come on the heels of Osama bin Laden's condemnation of Awakening Councils and his warning that their members will lose "this world and the afterlife."
The most striking of the recent attacks was Monday's killing of Samarrai. The perpetrators were able to kill a skilled and experienced commander who had been entrusted with providing security for one of the most powerful Sunni leaders in Iraq.
In addition to leading the Adhamiya Awakening Council, Samarrai was a close aide and security adviser to the leader of the Sunni Endowment, Sheik Ahmed Abdul Ghafour al-Samarrai. The sheik has angered hard-line Sunni leaders in recent months by openly promoting Sunni Awakening groups.
Samarrai was also in charge of a detachment of government forces who guard the offices of the Sunni Endowment, which administers Sunni mosques throughout Iraq.
According to witnesses and Awakening officials, Samarrai's assassin, who appeared to be acquainted with the colonel, waited patiently inside the main gate of the offices of the Sunni Endowment. When Samarrai emerged from a meeting inside the building, the killer walked up, began to embrace him, and then yanked the trigger on his hidden explosive belt.
Witnesses said the colonel's bodyguards did not try to stop the bomber, suggesting that he was known to people at the endowment, where the colonel spent many mornings, and raising fears of complicity from within.
"He reached him easily and was about to shake hands and hug him," said Tariq Abed, a laborer at the endowment offices who suffered wounds to his face and shoulder. He said that judging by the effortlessness of the assassin's approach, he must have been friends with the colonel.
The attack was closely coordinated with a car bombing minutes later just outside the gate that killed several people who had rushed to the scene and damaging trucks transporting victims of the first bombing to the hospital.
Sheik Ghafour told Iraqi state-run television on Monday night that he believed al-Qaida in Mesopotamia was responsible for the attacks. Numbering well into the thousands, the members of al-Qaida in Mesopotamia are overwhelmingly Iraqi, but U.S. intelligence officials believe the group has foreign-born leaders.
Last week, Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said the pace of attacks against Awakening fighters was "perhaps one of the clearest indications of the importance that these Awakening movements and concerned local citizens are having on improving the security situation in Iraq."
Victims of the two blasts were taken to Numan Hospital in Adhamiya. Squads of Awakening fighters followed closely behind in pickup trucks. They removed wooden coffins and carried them inside the hospital to gather remains of their friends.
Fears ran high another bomber would attack, and Awakening guards blocked even anxious relatives from entering the hospital. The family members stood outside, sobbing or talking hurriedly on cell phones.
One woman pleaded to see her son Ahmed, who she said was being treated inside. "He's a young guy, and he's never done anything bad," she said.
One of the Awakening guards didn't want to tell her the grim news. "Poor woman," he said, when she was out of earshot. "I took him to the hospital myself and he was already dead."