BAGHDAD – Staggered explosions Wednesday killed 23 people — 13 of them policemen — and wounded an Iraqi provincial governor, officials said, in the worst violence in months to hit the western province that was formerly Al Qaeda's top stronghold in Iraq.
Also in Iraq, a British hostage held for over two years by militants was released safely in Baghdad and is now in the care of the British Embassy here.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said in a statement in London that Peter Moore was released by his captors Wednesday morning and taken to Iraqi authorities.
"He is in good health, despite his many months of captivity. He is undergoing medical checks and he will be reunited with his family as soon as possible," Miliband said. "He is obviously — to put it mildly — delighted at his release."
A Shiite militant group called Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or League of the Righteous is believed to have been behind the abduction of five people, including Moore, from Iraq's finance ministry in 2007. Moore was working for a U.S.-based management consulting firm in Iraq at the time of his abduction, and the other four were taken were his security team.
The bodies of three of the bodyguards were later released and British officials have said the fourth, Alan McMenemy, is believed to be dead as well.
The attacks Wednesday were worrisome because the strategically important Anbar province was once the heartland of support for Al Qaeda-linked militants, before many insurgents turned on the terror organization and joined forces with U.S. troops and the Iraqi government. The governor is the most senior Sunni leader to be attacked since then.
While violence in Iraq has dropped considerably since the height of the conflict in 2006 and 2007, a reinvigorated insurgency in Anbar — which is also Iraq's largest province — could pose a serious risk to the country's stability as it prepares for elections in March.
The bombings are also the latest in a string of attacks to target government buildings and installations in the country, as a way to undermine Iraqis' confidence in the ability of the government to protect itself. Insurgents trying to ignite sectarian violence also killed six people at a Shiite mourning event north of Baghdad, officials said.
Police official Lt. Col. Imad al-Fahdawi said two bombs exploded in Anbar's capital of Ramadi, 70 miles (115 kilometers) west of Baghdad. He says a suicide bomber in a car caused the first blast near a checkpoint on the main road near the provincial administration buildings.
Gov. Qassim al-Fahdawi, the deputy police chief and other officials came to inspect the damage, the police official said, when a suicide bomber on foot detonated a vest full of explosives nearby.
The deputy police chief was killed and the governor and other officials wounded, al-Fahdawi said. Police have put a curfew in place, he added.
Another police official said the provincial police commander was wounded. The police official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
A spokesman for the governor, Mohammed Fathi, told the Al-Arabiyah news channel that bombers are trying to prevent the investment and reconstruction that has been going on as security in the region has improved.
"This violence is done by those who want to hamper rebuilding in Anbar," he said.
A doctor at the main hospital in Ramadi, Ahmed Abid Mohammed, said 23 people had been killed and 57 injured. He said the governor had suffered burns on his face, injuries to his abdomen and other areas.
American forces were helping evacuate casualties, establish security and carry out forensic investigations, said military spokesman Lt. Col. Curtis Hill.
Television footage from the blasts showed large black plumes of smoke rising from the scene as emergency and police vehicles rushed to the area with sirens blaring.
There are 18 provincial governors in Iraq. Anbar is primarily Sunni, the minority sect of Islam that at one point ruled the country under former dictator Saddam Hussein. The province was the former stronghold of the insurgency, and the site of some of the war's most intense fighting between U.S. forces and insurgents in the key cities of Ramadi and Fallujah.
In 2006, many former insurgents began to rebel against Al Qaeda, and joined forces with the U.S. military, who paid fighters to participate in the pro-government Sons of Iraq program, also known as the Awakening Council.
The decision by the Sons of Iraq to join forces with U.S. and Iraqi forces to combat Al Qaeda about three years ago is considered one of the key reasons for the drop in violence seen in Iraq today. But the Sons of Iraq as well as many Sunni political figures have repeatedly been targeted for their cooperation with the Shiite-led government. Five members of the Awakening Council were killed at a checkpoint Tuesday in central Iraq.
Insurgents targeting government buildings in downtown Ramadi killed 19 people in October of this year.
The Sunni fighters have expressed fears that they will be sidelined by the mainly Shiite government after the American forces leave.
In the town of Khalis, about 50 miles northeast of Baghdad, a bomb killed six pilgrims taking part in a procession to commemorate the death of a Shiite revered saint, said a Diyala province police spokesman, Capt. Ghalib al-Karkhi. He said the blast also wounded 24 people.
A health official at the town's hospital confirmed the figures. He spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to release information.
On Sunday, Shiite Muslims marked the death of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson, Imam Hussein. His death marked the split between Sunnis and Shiites. While Shiites are a majority in Iraq, under the former dictator Saddam Hussein the minority Sunnis ruled the country and shows of devotion to the Shiite figure were outlawed.
Since a Shiite-led government came to power following the U.S.-led invasion, Shiites have once again been able to commemorate the occasion publicly. However, the events have often been targeted by insurgents trying to incite sectarian violence.