Iraqi Parliament Speaker Escapes Car Bombing

By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 22, 2006

BAGHDAD, Nov. 21 -- A car bomb exploded inside the heavily protected Green Zone on Tuesday in an apparent attempt to kill Iraq's controversial speaker of parliament.

About 2 p.m., a small bomb exploded in one of the armored cars in Mahmoud al-Mashhadani's motorcade as it approached the convention center where parliament meets, said Lt. Col. Christopher C. Garver, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq. Mashhadani was not in the car, and the driver survived, Garver said.

Bomb-sniffing dogs then detected explosives in another vehicle, Garver said. Bomb specialists detonated that car, which set off a series of blasts that caused a fire but injured no one and caused no major damage to nearby structures.

Members of parliament were forced to stay inside the convention center for about four hours until the fire was extinguished and the area deemed safe, Garver said. "They were told to remain inside for their safety," he said.

Garver said he was not sure how the explosives made it so far into the Green Zone, which houses the Iraqi government, the U.S. and British embassies and thousands of foreign troops and private contractors. Anyone trying to enter the zone must pass through several checkpoints -- first to get into the complex, then to enter individual buildings.

The Green Zone has been a frequent target of mortar and rocket attacks, but although bombs have exploded at checkpoints at entrances to the zone, they rarely infiltrate the fortresslike compound. "Obviously, there is an investigation going on," Garver said.

Mashhadani is the fifth high-ranking Iraqi government official to be targeted in recent days. An outspoken Sunni Arab, Mashhadani last summer called the U.S. occupation "the work of butchers." Shiite and Kurdish groups called for his ouster after that and other provocative comments.

On Tuesday, his supporters reacted angrily to news that he had been targeted for assassination.

"We condemn and denounce this act, and we consider this as a criminal act, for Dr. Mashhadani is valuable to us," said Ammar Wajih, director of the media office at the Iraqi Islamic Party, a leading Sunni Arab group.

As Tuesday's assassination attempt and infiltration of the Green Zone highlighted Iraq's deteriorating security situation, the government moved to stabilize relations with a long-hostile neighbor. By signing an accord to restore diplomatic ties with Syria, ending a quarter-century of enmity, Iraqi leaders said they hoped to stem the flow of foreign insurgents across their common border.

"The flag of Iraq will be raised in the sky of Damascus and the flag of Syria will be raised in the sky of Baghdad, and ambassadors will be named," Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said at a news conference in Baghdad with his Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Muallem.

The two countries had been at odds since the 1980s, when Syria sided with Iran in its war against Iraq. Most recently, U.S. and Iraqi leaders have accused Syria of doing too little to stop foreign fighters from crossing into Iraq.

In signing the agreement, Muallem abandoned his demand that the United States set a timetable for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq. Instead, he agreed that the troops should stay until no longer needed.

The agreement came as Iraqi President Jalal Talabani prepared to leave Friday for a weekend meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran. Ahmadinejad had hoped to include Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the summit, but Ali al-Dabbagh, the official spokesman for the Iraqi government, said there were no plans for Assad to join them.

He did, however, say that the Syrian leader has invited Talabani and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to Damascus to talk about regional solutions to the sectarian violence within Iraq. "The invitation is there, and then we'll work it out to find a convenient time," he said.

Also Tuesday, U.S. and Iraqi forces raided Sadr City, Baghdad's vast Shiite slum, and captured seven members of the Mahdi Army, a militia loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. One of the men was believed to know the whereabouts of Ahmed Qusai al-Taayie, a U.S. soldier who was kidnapped a month ago while visiting his Iraqi wife in Baghdad, officials said.

In Ramadi, there were reports by witnesses and a hospital physician that Abu Zaid al-Tunisi, a senior aide to al-Qaeda in Iraq's former leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was killed in a U.S. airstrike Monday night. Garver, the military spokesman, said Tuesday that he could not confirm the reports.

Special correspondents Saad al-Izzi and Naseer Mehdawi in Baghdad and other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company