Two suicide bombers targeting members of a government-backed, anti-al-Qaida militia struck within hours of each other early Sunday, killing at least 48 people and wounding dozens more, Iraqi officials said.
The bombings were the deadliest in a series of attacks across Iraq Sunday that were aimed at the Sons of Iraq, a Sunni group also known as Sahwa that works with government forces to fight al-Qaida in Iraq. The attacks highlighted the stiff challenges the country faces as the U.S. scales back its forces in Iraq, leaving their Iraqi counterparts in charge of security.
The first attack Sunday morning _ the deadliest against Iraq's security forces in months _ killed at least 45 people and wounded more than 40. It occurred at a checkpoint near a military base where Sahwa members were lined up to receive paychecks in the mostly Sunni district of Radwaniya southwest of Baghdad.
"There were more than 150 people sitting on the ground when the explosion took place. I ran, thinking that I was a dead man," said Uday Khamis, 24, who was sitting outside the Mahmoudiyah hospital where many of the wounded were taken. His left hand was bandaged and his clothes were stained with blood.
"There were more dead people than wounded," he added.
There were conflicting reports as to how many of the dead were Iraqi soldiers and whether civilians _ accountants responsible for handing out money _ were among them, but the vast majority of those killed and injured appeared to be Sahwa members.
A military official at the base said the explosion was the work of one suicide bomber wearing an explosives vest.
All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
In Baghdad, Iraqi military spokesman Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said the bomber struck at 7 a.m. at a checkpoint near the military facility.
Some of those injured complained about what they perceived to be a lack of protection from the Iraqi military for the men lined up to receive their paychecks. Khamis said the men used to be searched but this time they were allowed to line up without any search being conducted.
Another man who was waiting at the hospital with his wounded nephew said this was the fifth day that the men had turned up at the base to collect their paychecks.
"Every time they went to receive their salary, they told them to come the next day and they did that for four days and now in the fifth day this explosion took place," said the man, Hassan Ali.
The area was immediately closed off, and Iraqi helicopters could be seen flying over the site.
In the second attack, a suspected militant stormed a local Sahwa headquarters in the Anbar province town of Qaim, near the Syrian border, and opened fire on those inside. Sahwa fighters returned fire, wounding the attacker, who then blew himself up as they gathered around him, killing three of the fighters and wounding six others, two police officials said, also speaking on condition of anonymity. Qaim is a former insurgent stronghold.
While violence has dropped dramatically over the past two years in the country, Iraqi security forces remain a favorite target for insurgents bent on destabilizing the country and its Shiite-led government.
The Sahwa fighters have played a key role in the reduction of violence in Iraq since they first rose up against their former al-Qaida allies in late 2006, joining the U.S. military and government forces in the fight against the terror group.
But their future role in the Shiite-majority country is contentious. The U.S. used to pay the monthly salaries of about $300 to the nearly 100,000-strong Sahwa force. Last year, the Iraqi government took over paying their salaries and, after heavy pressure from the Americans, agreed to absorb up to 20 percent of the fighters into its security forces. Others were to be absorbed into government jobs.
But members of the Sons of Iraq have complained about late paychecks, and many say they have been given menial jobs. One of the wounded Sunday, Khamis, said they were to receive two months' worth of salary on Sunday.
In another attack, roughly at the same time as that in Qaim, gunmen in a speeding car opened fire on a Sahwa checkpoint in Mahaweel, about 56 kilometers (35 miles) south of Baghdad, wounding one, according to Babil police spokesman Maj. Muthana Khalid.
Khalid said a roadside bomb went off about 30 minutes later, hitting a car driven by another Sahwa member in Haswa, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of Baghdad. The Sahwa member was wounded in the attack.
More than four months after an inconclusive parliamentary election in March, Iraq has no government as politicians continue to bicker over who will lead it. The impasse has raised fears that militants will exploit the political vacuum to re-ignite sectarian violence that brought Iraq to the brink of civil war in 2006 and 2007.
The attacks against the security forces and the Sahwa are especially worrying because they come at a time when the number of U.S. troops in Iraq is dropping and Iraq's nascent security forces are taking over security in the country. All U.S. combat units are scheduled to leave Iraq by the end of next month and the last American soldier by the end of next year.
Insurgents have used an array of attacks to intimidate and kill security forces, such as drive-by shootings, bombs attached to the undercarriage of vehicles and bombing houses where security forces live. But Sunday's attack in Radwaniya was more reminiscent of the type insurgents used in the past to discourage people from joining the security forces.