Six die in blast targeted at Iraqi minister

How did they know he was coming? Even the Justice Minister’s bodyguards – those who survived the suicide bomber – agreed they had never taken this route before. Old Malik Dohan al-Hassan – for the minister is 80 years old – had left his home in the Hay al-Jamiaa district of Baghdad just after 8.30am yesterday and his convoy of guards had just turned beneath a motorway bridge when they saw a small car being parked on the other side of the road.

The explosion ripped through the vehicles, killing five security guards and Mr Hassan’s nephew, and wounding at least six others. Two of the convoy’s cars were set alight. When I reached the site, another security vehicle was parked across the laneway, dripping blood from its driver’s door. All that was left of the suicide bomber was a pile of grey ash and tiny pieces of metal. From the car’s engine block – which was thrown 100 yards across the motorway into a housing estate – the police identified it as a 1982 Toyota.

A very important date was being observed by some in Iraq yesterday: the 36th anniversary of the Baathist revolution that overthrew the monarchy. We had all been waiting to see how it would be marked. In the town of Mahmoudia, south of Baghdad, a car blew up outside an Iraqi National Guard recruiting centre, killing two Iraqi soldiers and wounding some would-be recruits who were waiting – always a danger these days – at the gates in the hope of joining up.

Other explosions reverberated across Baghdad during the morning – one of them a roadside bomb that exploded only 500 yards from the wreckage of the Justice Minister’s convoy. He was, in the horrible language of guerrilla warfare a “prestige” target, one of the best-known lawyers in the Arab world who was head of the lawyers union under the previous “interim governing council.” He was recently involved in controversy when lawyers in Jordan who have asked to defend Saddam Hussein at his trial alleged that Mr Hussein had threatened them – a claim he angrily rejected. “How could I threaten anyone?” he responded.

But someone was clearly threatening him yesterday. Just as they threatened – and succeeded in killing – the governor of Mosul last week. And Sabr Karim, a senior auditor in the industry ministry, gunned down outside his home. And the governor of Ninevah province. And a Foreign Ministry official, Iyad Allawi, the American appointed Prime Minister, remarked that there would be an increase in attacks on his officials. He was right. He also said that a new intelligence organisation was being formed with “professionals” in its ranks – an expression which strongly suggests that the brutal ex-Saddam interrogators may soon be back at work.

At the scene of the attack yesterday, on Mr Hassan’s convoy, there were – standing among the uniformed police and American troops – a number of men in sunglasses, wearing white socks, and with pistols tucked into their belts and small radios: always a sign og Arab mukhabarat (intelligence) agents. A couple of years ago they would have been celebrating the Baath party’s anniversary.

Outside the nearest hospital, I found one of Mr Hassan’s surviving security guards – saved, he understandably declared, “by God’s grace”.

So how come, I asked, the suicide bomber knew where to wait for the convoy when it had never taken this route before? “That”, he said, “is what we are all asking”.

Middle East correspondent for London's Independent, often outspoken and out of step with the rest of the mainstream media