BAGHDAD -- Efforts to improve security in Anbar province, long the primary stronghold of the Sunni Arab insurgency, suffered a setback yesterday when suicide bombers detonated explosives at a police recruitment center in Fallujah and a police station in Ramadi. At least 20 people were killed and 31 injured, according to police and witnesses.
Meanwhile, American military officials announced the deaths of three more U.S. soldiers, two killed Wednesday in a road bombing in Baghdad and one who died of wounds from a road bomb northwest of the capital Tuesday. It has been announced that 227 soldiers died in April and May, the deadliest two-month period since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
The attacks in Anbar were the latest in a steady series against the followers of tribal sheiks who have spurned their one-time allies, al-Qaida in Iraq. Last week, a Fallujah sheik was murdered and his funeral procession was bombed, killing 30 mourners.
The number of police recruits in the province has risen rapidly in the past year, from the low hundreds in each city to a figure in the thousands today, military officials said. The trend has offered a fragile beacon of hope in an area with few essential services.
"Today's incident is absolutely another indication of the brutal people in the Qaida organization," Lt. Col. Christopher Garver said. "They are trying to drive a wedge between the people and the security forces."
The U.S. military, Iraqi army and police were running the recruitment center along with members of Anbar Salvation Council, the coalition of Sunni tribes opposed to foreign Islamist militants.
A Fallujah police source and a witness, who both declined to be named for security reasons, said the explosion occurred about 10:30 a.m. local time when a man wearing an explosives vest reached an area close to cadets and police recruiters. The attack in Ramadi was carried out by a truck bomber, witnesses said.
The police officer in Fallujah attributed the incidents to desperation on the part of local members of al-Qaida in Iraq, as it builds strongholds elsewhere in the country, especially northeast of Baghdad in Diyala province. "They are rapidly losing ground in Anbar and have been pushed out gradually. Now there are only a few elements remaining, mostly in Fallujah," the officer said.
In Baghdad, the search for five Britons abducted this week angered residents in the Shiite Muslim stronghold of Sadr City and a Sunni neighborhood critical to the U.S.-Iraqi security plan erupted in battle.
The Iraqi Ministry of Health, meanwhile, released figures that showed a steep uptick in the number of civilians killed in May.
The search for computer consultant Peter Moore and his four bodyguards appeared to be centered in Sadr City, where the kidnappers appeared to flee. The district is home base for radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's militia.
The U.S. military would not confirm that raids in the district were related to the search, but residents said that scores of troops descended, seeking information about the men's whereabouts, and many complained of heavy-handed tactics.
In the Sunni district of Ameriya, a violent clash erupted when Islamic State of Iraq militants prevented students from participating in their final exams, shooting randomly and forcing residents to stay in their homes, police said.
U.S. and Iraqi security forces responded with ground troops and helicopter gunships, pummeling the district for hours, police said.
At least 743 unidentified bodies were recovered in the capital in May, including 29 yesterday, the highest monthly toll since a joint U.S.-Iraqi security crackdown began in February.
Garrett Therolf writes for the Los Angeles Times.