BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A suicide bomber in army uniform detonated a vest packed with explosives at a military base in Iraq’s western Anbar province on Thursday, killing 16 people and wounding 50, the army and police said.
A Defence Ministry statement and Anbar’s military command centre said no one was killed, and only 17 wounded. There was no explanation for the discrepancy, although official tolls often fall far short of those from unofficial army and police sources.
“We had a regular parade, and were about to go into the cafeteria when a huge noise made me fall to the ground ... I saw fire, smoke and debris ... I saw people without arms and legs,” said soldier Mokhaled al-Dulaimi.
All the casualties were soldiers, the army and police said.
Al Qaeda and other Sunni Islamist insurgents once ruled Anbar, but it became one of Iraq’s safest provinces after Sunni tribal sheikhs turned on militants in their midst in late 2006.
The sheikhs formed a political party which last week confirmed its domination of Anbar’s bitterly contested local council after January polls, in which the party did well on a security platform after routing al Qaeda from the province.
The blast is the first major attack since the new council came to office.
The sheiks’ decision to turn on al Qaeda was copied elsewhere in Iraq, and U.S.-backed Sunni militias were formed to battle insurgents. Shi’ite-led government forces clashed with a Sunni militia in Baghdad late last month after they arrested a militia leader, raising tensions.
Thursday’s bombing was one of a string of high-profile attacks in Iraq in recent weeks, as provinces finalise new alliances and choose new governors after January’s vote.
The new political landscape is likely to set the scene for a national election scheduled for December, leading some analysts and Iraqis to point to political motives for the attacks.
Others say insurgents are trying to exploit tensions between the government and the Sunni militias, of whom many were former insurgents and could return to al Qaeda’s ranks if they feel threatened by the state.
Iraq’s Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari on Wednesday told Reuters he expected such attacks as U.S. troops prepare to withdraw from Iraqi cities by the end of June, making getting the Iraqi army ready to stand alone an urgent matter.
Iraq may turn to quicker and cheaper weapons suppliers than the United States to speed up the process, Zebari said.
On Wednesday an attack targeting a bus carrying police assigned to guard northern Iraq’s oil industry killed 10 people in the city of Kirkuk. The explosion could have been caused by a parked car bomb or a car driven by suicide bomber, police said.
Writing by Mohammed Abbas: Editing by Sophie Hares