BAGHDAD — Twin bombings – one an assassination attempt against an Iraqi provincial governor – killed 23 people and wounded the governor Wednesday in the worst violence in months to hit the western province that was once al-Qaida's top stronghold in Iraq.
Also on Wednesday, a British hostage held for more than two years by militants was released safely in Baghdad and is now in the care of the British Embassy.
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 men 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 in Anbar province were worrisome because the strategically important region was once the heartland of support for al-Qaida-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, 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 March elections.
Two bombs exploded in Anbar's capital of Ramadi, 70 miles (115 kilometers) west of Baghdad, said police Lt. Col. Imad al-Fahdawi. First, a car driven by a suicide bomber blew up near a checkpoint on the main road near the provincial administration buildings.
"When the first explosion occurred, the governor walked out of his office, heading to the site to see what happened," al-Fahdawi said.
"A second suicide bomber with an explosives belt and wearing a military uniform tried to make his way through the crowd of people and was stopped by guards of the governor," and then blew himself up just yards from the governor, al-Fahdawi said.
It was not known whether the first bomb was designed to lure the governor out of his office, but insurgents commonly use staggered explosions as a way to maximize damage as rescuers and security officials rush to the scene.
While Iraqi soldiers have been accused of taking part in attacks in the past, military and police uniforms are easy to buy or steal in Iraq and insurgents often disguise themselves in such outfits.
The governor was taken by U.S. military transport to a hospital in Baghdad, said a U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, Maj. Joe Scrocca. He would not release information on whether he was being treated at a U.S. or Iraqi facility.
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 were killed and 57 injured. He said the governor suffered burns on his face and 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 ruled the country under former dictator Saddam Hussein. The province was 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-Qaida, and joined forces with the U.S. military, who paid fighters to participate in the pro-government Sons of Iraq program.
The decision by the Sons of Iraq to join forces with U.S. and Iraqi forces to combat al-Qaida about three years ago is considered one of the key reasons for the drop in violence seen in Iraq today. But the group and many Sunni political figures have been targeted for cooperating with the Shiite-led government.
In the town of Khalis, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) northeast of Baghdad, a bomb killed six pilgrims taking part in a procession to commemorate the death of a Shiite saint, said a Diyala province police spokesman, Capt. Ghalib al-Karkhi. He said the blast also wounded 24 people.
On Sunday, Shiite Muslims marked the death of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson, Imam Hussein. His death marked the split between Sunnis and Shiites, and under Saddam's Sunni-led government, such religious displays were effectively outlawed.
Now, Shiites are able to commemorate the occasion publicly, but they're often targeted by insurgents.