Twin suicide bombings killed 48 people on Sunday, including dozens from a government-backed, anti-al-Qaida militia lining up to collect their paychecks near a military base southwest of Baghdad, Iraqi officials said.
The bombings were the deadliest in a series of attacks across Iraq Sunday that were aimed at the Sons of Iraq, Sunni groups also known as Awakening Councils that work 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 worst 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 the Awakening Council members had lined up to collect their 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 than wounded," he added.
At least a dozen men, dressed in military-style uniforms were seen laying in pools of blood in front of a blast wall in footage taken by the Associated Press Television shortly after the blast.
There were conflicting reports as to how many of the dead were Iraqi soldiers and whether any of the civilian accountants handing out money were among them.
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.
Some of the injured complained about what the 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 checks being conducted.
Another man who was waiting at the hospital with his wounded nephew said this was the fifth day they had gone to the base to try and 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 Hassan Ali.
The area was immediately sealed off, and Iraqi helicopters could be seen flying over the site.
In the second attack, a suspected militant stormed a local Awakening Council headquarters in the far western town Qaim, near the Syrian border, and opened fire on those inside.
The fighters returned fire, wounding the attacker, who then blew himself up as they gathered around him, killing three and wounding six others, police officials said on condition of anonymity.
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 Awakening Councils 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 militias. 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, with others getting government jobs.
Some members of the Awakening Councils, however, have complained about late paychecks, and many say they have been given menial jobs. Khamis, one of the wounded, said they were to receive two months' worth of salary.
A member of the provincial council in Anbar province where the Sons of Iraq were first organized said the lack of good government jobs has made the anti-al-Qaida militia members less eager to fight the insurgents.
"These heroes are no longer willing to fight al-Qaida because they have not received what they deserved," he said.
Two members of Awakening Councils were also wounded in two minor attacks south of Baghdad on Sunday.
More than four months after March's inconclusive parliamentary election, Iraq has still no government as politicians continue to bicker over who will lead. 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 Awakening Councils 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 on greater responsibilities 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.