BAGHDAD (Reuters) -Iraq”s oil minister survived an apparent assassination attempt on Monday when a roadside bomb blasted his motorcade in Baghdad as U.S. troops broadened a battle against insurgent fighters near the Syrian border.
At least two bodyguards were killed in the blast that targeted Oil Minister Ibrahim Bahr al-Uloum, who was heading to the northern refining town of Baiji, al-Uloum”s spokesman said.
"The minister is fine and is now at the ministry in a meeting with his staff," spokesman Assem Jihad said. Two of the cars in the official convoy had been destroyed by the attack in the Rashdiya district of northern Baghdad.
U.S. commanders, who have about 1,000 troops battling insurgents around the town of Si”ida about 7 miles from the Syrian border, broadened the operation to the nearby town of Karabila, killing eight suspected members of al Qaeda in Iraq, one of the country”s most feared insurgent groups.
"The goal of the operation is to root out al Qaeda in Iraq terrorists operating within the area and to disrupt insurgent support systems," the U.S. military said in a statement late on Sunday, the second day of Operation Iron Fist.
Military officials have cast doubt on a claim by the militant group that it had seized two marines in the fighting, although they said they were doing an inventory of personnel to verify that all were accounted for.
The military push in western Iraq comes amid an upsurge in insurgent violence across the country ahead of an October 15 referendum on a new constitution ahead of new national elections in December.
Iraq”s Shi”ite Muslim majority and northern, Kurdish population both largely back the new constitution, but the Sunni Arab minority which ruled the country before Saddam Hussein”s downfall in 2003 fears it will seal their political eclipse.
U.S. diplomats, fearful of enduring unrest, have spent weeks trying to defuse Sunni anger. But a decision by the Shi”ite- dominated parliament on Sunday that effectively made it harder for voters to veto the constitution irritated Sunnis further.
Sectarian tensions have spread across the region, dividing Iraq”s Shi”ite-led government from the Sunni rulers of the rest of the Arab world.
The relentless campaign of insurgent bombings, kidnappings and armed attacks has fueled fears that Iraq may be sliding into civil war, although senior U.S. military officials on Sunday sought to play down that possibility.
"If a legitimate government emerges that is broadly seen as being representative of Sunni, Shia and Kurdish interests, I think there is no reason to suppose that we can”t bring force levels down in the spring," General John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, said in one of several television interviews on Sunday.
"The people of Iraq think of themselves as Iraqis, and people are not interested necessarily in seeing the fragmentation of the country. And I don”t see that happening," he said in another television interview.
Interior Minister Bayan Jabor told Reuters on Sunday that documents seized after troops killed a purported aide to al Qaeda”s leader in Iraq, the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, indicated a plan to spread Islamist violence to other Arab countries.
Foreign Arab militants now numbered fewer than 1,000, compared to between 2,500 and 3,000 six months ago, he said, indicating that this could presage the start of a more widespread militant campaign in the region.
But in a sign of strain between two key U.S. allies in the Arab world, Jabor lashed out at Sunni Saudi Arabia for voicing concern over Shi”ite influence in Iraq– blasting the kingdom”s foreign minister as a "bedouin riding a camel."
Iraq”s Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari, attending a meeting of Arab foreign ministers in the Saudi city of Jeddah, apologized on Monday for Jabor”s comments which Zebari, a Kurd, described as "regrettable and inappropriate."
Sunday”s meeting of ministers from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait and Syria agreed to send Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa to Iraq, but diplomats said no date was set for the visit.