Iraqi VP escapes apparent assassination bid

news43.jpgKing visits Talabani at hospital, doctor says president suffers from extreme exhaustion, dehydration

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq’s Shiite vice president narrowly escaped assassination Monday as a blast ripped through a government meeting hall just hours after it was searched by US teams with bomb-sniffing dogs. At least 10 people were killed.

Adel Abdul-Mahdi was slightly injured in the explosion — which splintered chairs, destroyed a speakers’ podium and sent a chilling message that suspected Sunni fighters can strike anywhere despite a major security crackdown across Baghdad.

The area around the municipal building was sealed off by US forces. Investigators then grappled with the troubling question of how the bomb was smuggled into the ministry of public works — a seven-storey building with crack surveillance systems from its days as offices for Saddam Hussein’s feared intelligence service.

The bomb — possibly hidden in the podium — went off moments after the minister for public works finished a speech in the third-floor chamber, witnesses said.

Abdul-Mahdi had made a welcoming address a few minutes earlier, raising speculation the bomb could have been on a timer-trigger that missed the vice president by sheer luck.

Among those killed were several ministry employees, police said. More than 25 were wounded, including possible life-threatening injuries to the public works minister, Riyad Gharib.

Abdul-Mahdi — smothered by his bodyguards in an instant — suffered minor leg injuries and was hospitalised for tests, his office said.

“I heard a big explosion,” said Tagrid Ali, a public works ministry employee who attended the gathering to honour outstanding workers. “I fell to the ground and whole place was filled with black smoke.” Suspicion for the attack fell on Sunni insurgents, who have waged nonstop bombings and attacks against Iraq’s majority Shiites for cooperating with the US-backed government. But Abdul-Mahdi also has been locked in internal battles with the Shiite leadership. Adbul-Mahdi is one of two vice presidents. The other, Tariq Hashemi, is Sunni.

An Associated Press photographer witnessed security forces hustling a man from the building, but there were no immediately reports of any arrests.

“The aggression against you this day is further proof that these groups are doing their best to destroy Iraq’s unity,” said a message to the vice president from Abdul-Aziz Hakim, who heads Iraq’s largest Shiite political group.

Even as Iraqis learned of the near-miss, word was coming from Jordan that their president, Jalal Talabani, was facing more medical tests.

Talabani, from Iraq’s Kurdish north, was taken to Amman after falling unconscious Sunday. His son, Qubad Talabani, said the 73-year-old leader was “up and about” and blamed the episode on fatigue and exhaustion.

“He’ll be back in Baghdad soon,” added Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari.

But his private physician, Yedkar Hikmat, would give no timetable on his discharge, saying only that rumours Talabani had heart problems were “categorically wrong”.

King Abdullah visited Talabani at the King Hussein Medical Centre.

The bombing was yet another blow to claims by US and Iraqi forces that a nearly two-week-old security sweep across Baghdad is making headway. On Sunday, more than 40 people were killed in a suicide blast at a mostly Shiite college.

Voices of criticism to the security plan are growing louder.

Hashemi, the Sunni vice president, told the AP that the security plan does not treat all groups equally — an apparent reference to Sunni complaints that they are facing the most pressure and attention.

“Up to now, legal procedures have not been observed,” he said in an interview. “The human rights of Iraqis have not been respected as they should be.” Hasehemi also said he warned US officials during a visit to Washington in December that sectarian rivalry had paralysed the unity government and the White House must study alternatives if its current security strategy fails.

“I was very frank with the American administration. I encouraged them to think seriously about ‘Plan B’,” he said. “What sort of alternative do we have in the future in case the current security plan fails?” The leader of a powerful Shiite group, cleric Moqtada Sadr, complained bitterly that the US-Iraqi security sweeps around Baghdad have done nothing to stem the bombings that mostly target Shiite civilians.

The statement — read in Baghdad by an aide to Sadr on Sunday — could signal serious strains ahead for the security effort. Sadr’s Mehdi Army pulled its fighters off the streets under intense government pressure to let the neighbour-by-neighbour security sweeps move ahead.

Elsewhere, the US military displayed a large cache of weapons and parts for sophisticated roadside bombs found last week at an arms factory in a mostly Shiite village northeast of Baghdad.

Among the arsenal were mortars and rockets the military said were made in Iran — which Washington accuses of funnelling weapons and aid to Shiite factions. The suspected shipments include parts for so-called EFPs — explosively formed projectiles that fire a slug of molten metal that can penetrate armoured vehicles.

Capt. Clayton Combs called the discovery of a weapons-making hideout an important break.

“This is a significant amount,” he said during a news conference in Baghdad. “Before we have found one or two EFPs at the most and those are usually at the site of deployment. This is the first cache…  that has actually been found as far as a production facility.” Along with the EFPs, the weapons cache contained more than two dozen mortars and 15 rockets. There were enough metal disks to make 130 EFPs, the military said.

Last week, US troops found a suspected Shiite weapons hideout in the southern city of Hillah that also included parts to make the lethal roadside bombs. The New York Times reported that the stash included a bomb-rigged fake boulder made of polyurethane that was apparently ready to be placed for an attack and a US explosives expert said the device — like others found in the raid — has been used by Hizbollah in southern Lebanon. Iran is believed to be a major supporter of Hizbollah.

A statement from the US military Monday said that 63 weapons caches have been discovered during the US-Iraqi security offensive around Baghdad that began February 14. The arsenals included anti-aircraft weapons, armour-piercing bullets, bomb components and mortar rounds, the statement said.

In Baghdad, Maliki’s Cabinet approved a proposed new oil law that would divide revenues among all Iraqi factions. It now moves to the Shiite-dominated parliament for a final vote.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has stressed the importance of making rapid progress on the oil law as a way to strengthen unity in the deeply fractured nation and encourage foreign investment in one of OPEC’s former heavyweights.

Iraq’s Appeals Council, meanwhile, agreed to review the case of Saddam Hussein’s deputy, Taha Yassin Ramadan, who was sentenced to death by hanging February 12 for his role in the massacre of Shiite civilians in 1982 following an assassination attempt against the former Iraqi leader.

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