A triple bombing aimed at a reconciliation meeting in Ramadi, the capital of Iraq's Anbar province, killed at least 26 people and wounded dozens Sunday, highlighting fears that insurgents are regrouping in what was once the epicenter of their revolt.
The blasts occurred amid growing concerns that crucial national elections scheduled for January may have to be postponed if lawmakers fail to agree soon on a new election law.
The midday bombings targeted the Anbar provincial council's headquarters during a meeting between representatives of the Shiite Muslim-led government and local members of the Awakening movement, a Sunni Muslim group that turned against the insurgency in 2006.
Two car bombs exploded in rapid succession in a parking lot outside the government offices where the meeting was being held, then a suicide attacker detonated a third bomb outside the city's hospital as those injured in the first explosions were arriving.
The attacks are the latest in a string of bombings in Anbar that have given rise to fears that insurgents are regrouping before the elections, which are set for Jan. 16.
"They want to destabilize the situation in Anbar generally before the election," said Anbar Police Chief Gen. Tariq Yusuf, who blamed "terrorists" and predicted more violence.
In a statement issued Sunday in Baghdad, the United Nations mission in Iraq warned that there was a real risk the elections would have to be delayed because of squabbling within Iraq's legislature over what kind of election law to adopt and the composition of the commission that will oversee the poll.
With the scheduled elections just three months away, "there remains no clarity on the election law," the statement said. In order for the poll to be held on time, "preparations will need to be accelerated in a number of areas."
An election delay could in turn delay the withdrawal of U.S. troops, the bulk of which are scheduled to pull out immediately after a new government is seated. U.S. officials have said the elections will have to take place by Jan. 16 if the estimated 80,000 troops, with all their gear, are to leave in time for the August deadline set by President Obama for the withdrawal of all U.S. combat personnel from Iraq.
Iraq's Constitution also stipulates that the elections must take place by January.
Parliament has been bickering over whether voters should be able to cast ballots for individual candidates or for political parties -- a so-called open-list system versus a closed list. The U.N. also expressed concerns that the legislature last week opened an investigation into members of the country's Independent High Electoral Commission responsible for overseeing elections in Iraq, an exercise that could also indefinitely delay the elections.
Faraj Haidari, head of the commission, has told lawmakers they must agree by Wednesday on an election law in order for the proper registration procedures to be completed and the ballot papers to be printed in time.
The deadline for a new law could be pushed back to Oct. 20, he said, but no later. If parliament decides to change the composition of the commission, "it means no election in January," he added.
Public opinion, the powerful Shiite clergy and most political leaders have expressed a preference for an open-list system, which is considered the more democratic option. But there are suspicions that many in parliament, who fear being rejected by disgruntled voters, would prefer a "closed-list" system under which parties decide the candidates and voters choose only a party.
Current election law provides for a closed-list system, and the legislature has agreed that if no accord is reached on a new law by the deadline, the old law will apply. But after revered Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani issued a statement last week warning that he would not support the elections unless an open list was adopted, there are concerns that the credibility of the poll could come into question if parliament fails to agree on a new law.
Legislators must also decide what form the voting should take in the disputed region of Kirkuk, which is claimed by both Arabs and Kurds -- another issue that has ensnared efforts to craft a new law and which could yet scuttle plans to hold the elections on time.
Times staff writer Usama Redha contributed to this report.