Last updated: 17 September, 2011

Iraq officials in talks over Anbar bus murders

Iraq’s defence minister and other officials held talks on Saturday in the western province of Anbar over the murder of 22 Shiite pilgrims days earlier, in a bid to defuse tensions in the region.

Anbar leaders have voiced frustration over national forces in the wake of Monday’s massacre, and one senior local politician has called for security in the province to be handled by local militiamen instead.

“The prime minister (Nuri al-Maliki) has sent a senior security delegation to Anbar,” defence ministry spokesman Major General Mohammed al-Askari told AFP. “They are holding meetings with tribes and officials.”

The group is headed by Defence Minister Saadun al-Dulaimi and also includes Faruq al-Araji, the senior security official in Maliki’s office, and national security adviser Falah al-Fayadh, Askari said.

He added that the delegation would then head to the neighbouring province of Karbala later on Saturday for further talks there.

On Monday, a bus carrying Shiite pilgrims from the shrine city of Karbala was stopped by insurgents who set up a fake checkpoint in Anbar province. The gunmen, dressed in security force uniforms, killed 22 male pilgrims before fleeing.

Police from Karbala arrested at least eight people on Thursday in connection with the massacre. They has since been handed over to Anbar authorities for investigation, Askari said.

The bus was one of the daily services departing from Karbala carrying Shiite pilgrims bound for Syria. On its way to Iraq’s western neighbour, it must pass through the desert region of Anbar.

Since the US-led invasion of 2003, mainly Sunni Anbar has been a stronghold of Al-Qaeda, whose members have killed numerous Iraqis and foreigners travelling to Jordan and Syria.

While tribal militias have cracked down on the insurgents since 2007, they have not completely eliminated them.

Ahmed Abu Risha, whose brother founded the first Sunni tribal militia that joined forces with the US military against Al-Qaeda, called on Maliki in the aftermath of the bus attack to transfer responsibility for security in Anbar to the militiamen, known as the Sahwa.

He told Al-Sharqiya television that Iraqi security forces could not handle security in the province, and the Sahwa should take over instead.