Blast jars Baghdad district's relative safety

Iraq's labor minister escaped assassination Thursday when a suicide bomber rammed an explosives-laden SUV into his convoy, killing at least nine people in one of the safest areas of the capital.

The bomber drove his Toyota Land Cruiser into the convoy carrying Labor and Social Affairs Minister Mahmoud Mohammed al-Radhi as it passed near Tahrir Square in the busy Bab al-Sharji market area — not far from the U.S.-protected Green Zone.

The blast left a 15-foot crater in the road and the smell of gunpowder in the air. The Shiite minister was unharmed, but three guards were killed, ministry spokesman Abdullah al-Lami said.

“It is the latest in a series of criminal acts that are targeting development process in Iraq,” al-Lami told Al-Arabiya television. He could not be reached for further comment, but an Iraqi police official later said al-Radhi's nephew was among the dead.

The district has seen several bombings in past years, including one on March 13 that killed 18 people. But authorities have reinforced security with several checkpoints and concrete walls, and it had been relatively peaceful for months.

The area had been frequently targeted in the past because it was a transit route for convoys to and from the Green Zone, said Hadi Hassan, who was inside his camera store when the bomber struck nearby.

“The glass of my shop's door shattered inside and out and I was slightly wounded in my head and hand,” he said.

The Iraqi military said nine people were killed and 26 wounded in the blast.

But police and hospital officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the information, put the death toll at 14.

It is difficult to determine casualty tolls from bombings in Iraq because the aftermath is usually very chaotic and many people rush victims away from the site.