A convoy carrying Iraq’s Finance Minister Rafe al-Essawi, a leading Sunni politician was said to be hit by a roadside bomb north of Baghdad on Sunday night, wounding two bodyguards but leaving the official unscathed, a report carried out by the New York Times said on Tuesday.
However, security forces from the Salahuddin Operations Command, which answers to the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, denied that there had been any attack in the Province, the newspaper reported. But later, the local police in Salahuddin contradicted that account, and accused the operations command of “hiding” the incident.
Salahuddin province is a largely Sunni area that is home to a renowned Shiite shrine and includes Saddam Hussein’s hometown.
The newspaper said that Essawi himself was in no doubt. He was quoted as saying that he and a few other Iraqi politicians were returning to Baghdad from a funeral when a blast slammed their convoy outside the holy city of Samarra.
Essawi said he did not know whether the bombing was an assassination attempt aimed specifically at him. But he quickly laid blame for the bombing on the government.
Sectarian tensions are running high in Iraq after the last U.S. troops pulled out a couple of weeks ago. Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has sought the arrest of Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, accused of running death squads.
Essawi, a former hospital director from Anbar Province in the western Sunni heartland, has been a central figure in the political furor. He has been an outspoken critic of Iraq’s Shiite prime minister. He has called for Maliki to be replaced and is refusing to attend meetings of Iraq’s cabinet — moves that have prompted the prime minister to try to push him aside.
The political crisis, Iraq’s worst in a year, threatens Maliki’s fragile year-old coalition government, an alliance of Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish political blocs.
U.S. and Iraqi officials have been engaged in a flurry of talks to try ease tensions in a crisis that could have wider impact in the region with Iraq’s Sunni and Shiite neighbors.