BAGHDAD – Iraq’s labor minister escaped assassination Thursday when a suicide bomber rammed an explosives-laden SUV into his convoy, killing at least nine people in one of the safest areas of the capital.
The blast came on a day when the U.S. relinquished control of a province that includes much of the area south of Baghdad once known as the “triangle of death.” Babil is the 12th of 18 Iraqi provinces to be placed under Iraqi control, paving the way for U.S. forces eventually to go home. Americans will stay in the area to help the Iraqis when needed.
The bomber drove his Toyota Land Cruiser into the convoy carrying Labor and Social Affairs Minister Mahmoud Mohammed al-Radhi as it passed near Tahrir Square in the busy Bab al-Sharji market area – not far from the U.S.-protected Green Zone.
The blast left a 15-foot crater in the road and the smell of gunpowder in the air. The Shiite minister was unharmed, but three guards were killed, ministry spokesman Abdullah al-Lami said.
“It is the latest in a series of criminal acts that are targeting development process in Iraq,” al-Lami told Al-Arabiya television. He could not be reached for further comment, but an Iraqi police official later said al-Radhi’s nephew was among the dead.
The district has seen several bombings in past years, including one on March 13 that killed 18 people. But authorities have reinforced security with several checkpoints and concrete walls, and it had been relatively peaceful for months.
The area had been frequently targeted in the past because it was a transit route for convoys to and from the Green Zone, said Hadi Hassan, who was inside his camera store when the bomber struck nearby.
“The glass of my shop’s door shattered inside and out and I was slightly wounded in my head and hand,” he said.
The blast slammed shrapnel against the car of an Associated Press employee who was stopped at a traffic light about 50 yards away. He and others took shelter behind their cars until Iraqi security forces opened fire in the air and ordered them to evacuate the area.
AP Television News video showed a burned SUV and the charred hulk of the apparent car bomb surrounded by Iraqi security forces.
The Iraqi military said nine people were killed and 26 wounded in the blast.
But police and hospital officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to release the information, put the death toll at 14.
It is difficult to determine casualty tolls from bombings in Iraq because the aftermath is usually very chaotic and many people rush victims away from the site.
The Babil transfer ceremony was held near the ruins of the ancient city of Babylon.
Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, said security gains in the area have been remarkable, with the number of attacks falling about 80 percent since last year. But he cautioned that “while the enemies of Iraq are down, they are not necessarily defeated.”
The White House said the handover was another example of security improving.
“This brings the total to about two-thirds of Iraq that is now being controlled by Iraqis,” White House press secretary Dana Perino said. “The president is appreciative of all the work that our forces have done, but also recognizes that the Iraqis have done a lot of work, too, to get to this point.”