Iraq Cabinet member escapes bomb in Baghdad

BAGHDAD (AP) -- An Iraqi Cabinet member escaped injury Thursday when a roadside bomb exploded near his convoy in Baghdad, as tensions rose between Arab and Kurdish politicians in the north ahead of regional elections.

Abed Theyab, minister of higher education, was traveling to work when the bomb went off as he passed through the Karradah district, police said. No one in the convoy was hurt but three civilian bystanders were wounded, the police added.

In another attack, a government security guard was killed when a bomb exploded on Nidal Street near Tahrir Square in central Baghdad, police reported. The target was believed to have been a convoy carrying employees of the Housing Ministry to work.

All the police officials giving details spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to release information to media.

Although violence is down significantly, extremists still launch attacks regularly in Baghdad and elsewhere, especially against Iraqi military, police and government targets.

Late Thursday, two rockets or mortars struck the Green Zone, injuring one person, the U.S. military said. Iraqi police said the projectiles were fired from a Shiite area of east Baghdad into the enclave, which includes Iraqi government offices and the U.S. Embassy.

U.S. and Iraqi authorities fear an increase in violence ahead of the Jan. 31 elections, when voters in 14 of the 18 provinces choose members of regional ruling councils.

Much of those fears focus on the ethnically mixed north, where al-Qaida and other Sunni insurgent groups still operate.

Tension has been rising between Arab and Kurdish politicians in the northern city of Mosul, which remains volatile despite repeated security operations by U.S. and Iraqi soldiers. U.S. officials say much of the Mosul violence is fueled by Arab-Kurdish rivalry.

Kurds comprise less than a third of Mosul's population but hold 31 of 41 seats on the current provincial council because many Sunni Arabs boycotted the last provincial elections in January 2005.

U.S. officials hope the upcoming election will redress that imbalance and provide a local government more representative of the population.

But suspicion between the two groups runs deep.

On Thursday, Kurdish politicians issued a statement calling for the dismissal from parliament of prominent Sunni Arab lawmaker Osama al-Nujaifi for "his fabrications against the Kurdish people."

The call came a day after five mostly Arab political parties demanded more government protection for polling stations in Kurdish-controlled areas around Mosul, alleging that Kurds may try to rig the vote. Kurdish politicians denied any plan to manipulate the balloting.

Security forces in Mosul were long dominated by Kurdish soldiers until the Baghdad government recently sent thousands of Arab troops to replace them. But Kurds retain influence in areas of eastern Mosul and surrounding villages.

Responding to the Kurdish demand for his ouster, al-Nujaifi said he had nothing against the Kurdish people. But he accused Kurdish politicians of trying to expand the borders of the Kurdish self-ruled region of northern Iraq.

Last year, local authorities closed down a Mosul radio station run by al-Nujaifi for allegedly "sowing sedition and fueling tension" between Kurds and Arabs in the city, which is outside the Kurdish-run region.

Kurds in the three-province, self-ruled region, known as Kurdistan, are not voting in the Jan. 31 elections. But many Kurds live outside Kurdistan and are eligible to vote where they reside.

Also Thursday, Iraqi police arrested 13 suspected Sunni insurgents north of Baghdad, including three senior members of an al-Qaida front group, the Islamic State of Iraq, police said.

Police Brig. Gen. Sarhat Qadir said the arrests were made near Hawija, 150 miles north of Baghdad. The three figures linked to the Islamic State had fled to the area from Fallujah, a former insurgent stronghold west of Baghdad, Qadir said.

Al-Qaida-linked militants have been on the run since Sunni tribes broke with the terror movement in 2006 and joined forces with the U.S. Many of them are believed to have sought refuge in northern Iraq.

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