An explosion ripped through a gathering of U.S military officials and allied Sunni Muslim tribesmen Thursday, killing three Marines, two interpreters and 20 Iraqis in the rural western town of Karmah, U.S. and Iraqi authorities said.
The blast, which Iraqi police blamed on a suicide bomber, killed some of the U.S. military's most dedicated proxies in the fight against the militant group al-Qaida in Iraq: the mayor, two prominent sheiks and their sons, and another sheik and his brother. All supported or belonged to the local “awakening council,” one of the U.S.-backed militias that have taken up arms against al-Qaida in Iraq.
Surviving tribesmen said the attack only made them more defiant in the effort to drive Sunni extremists from Anbar province, the longtime militant fiefdom that had become a showpiece for U.S. success against the insurgency.
“The awakening council is strong and its presence will not be erased,” said Abdul Rahman al-Jumeili, a senior awakening leader in Karmah. “If one sheik is killed, his son will take over. If the son is killed, the cousin will take over. The security process is moving forward and it will not be stopped. And we will not be stopped.”
The timing of the bombing was a harsh blow for Anbar, where the U.S. military had been just days away from handing over security responsibility to Iraqis. That ceremony now has been postponed indefinitely, Iraqi officials said after talks with the Marines. The military didn't identify the Marine casualties; witnesses said senior American commanders in Anbar had been at the meeting.
With the deaths of the Marines, the number of U.S. service members killed in Iraq so far this month totals at least 29, one of the bloodiest stretches in months. Three U.S. civilian employees and more than 50 Iraqis have died in the same period. At least 38 Iraqis were killed Thursday alone.
Sunni insurgents and Shiite Muslim militiamen are being blamed for the recent bloodshed in and around municipal buildings, perhaps an indication that radicals from both sects are working to undo the shaky successes of the U.S. troop buildup. The attacks also undercut the Iraqi government.