BAGHDAD — A roadside bomb that exploded Sunday near a convoy that was carrying the U.S. ambassador to Iraq was "unusual, definitely," and American officials are investigating whether it was an assassination attempt.
U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the incident is under investigation, stressed Monday that they didn't know whether the bomb was intended to target American Ambassador Christopher Hill. Investigators' arrival on the scene has been delayed by severe sandstorms, one official said.
The province where the explosion took place, Dhi Qar, is a largely agricultural, Shiite Muslim-dominated region that hasn't been a center of ethnic violence and insurgency. Hill was visiting a group of civilian development experts known as a provincial reconstruction team when the bomb exploded ahead of his convoy. He'd just completed a meeting with political leaders in Nasiriyah, the province's capital.
Susan Ziadeh, a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman, said in the statement: "An explosive device detonated near a convoy carrying American embassy personnel, including the ambassador, on July 12 in Dhi Qar province. No personnel were injured or hurt. An investigation into the incident is taking place."
Officials in Washington said that an agent from the State Department's Diplomatic Security Service usually would have accompanied Hill by as well as private security guards from the company Triple Canopy, though they said they could provide no specifics about what security precautions had been taken Sunday.
The incident comes amid renewed violence in the country after U.S. combat forces withdrew from major Iraqi cities June 30.
A wave of church and mosque bombings that's killed four people and injured dozens continued Monday. A bomb in a vehicle parked between a mosque and a church in the northern city of Nineveh exploded, severely injuring three young boys and damaging both structures.
The U.S. ambassador, who's been in Iraq for two months, told a reporter from USA Today who was traveling behind the convoy, "It was nothing."
Dhi Qar province, which is almost 200 miles southeast of Baghdad, has been relatively free of the violence that's racked Baghdad and northern Iraq since American combat troops withdrew from major cities.
However, the U.S. military reported in mid-June that Iraqi and U.S. security forces had uncovered a large cache of weapons at a factory in Dhi Qar that was being used to manufacture improvised explosive devices.
Anna Prouse, an Italian who leads the provincial reconstruction team in the area, told the USA Today reporter, "How can you tell foreign investors to come here, when for the first time the ambassador comes and sits down to listen to people and their ideas and you (attempt to) blow him up? These elements are few, but it is now up to Iraqi forces to go get them."
Elsewhere in Iraq, the church bombings have heightened sectarian tensions and are testing the mettle of Iraqs security forces.
On Sunday, several churches were targeted in Baghdad. A bomb in a parked car near a church in the northeastern section of the capital killed four people and wounded 21. Three bombs blew up near churches in the Karrada neighborhood, wounding eight people. Three people were hurt when a bomb detonated near a church in south Baghdad.
Iraqi army and national police officials, who've taken over control from U.S. combat forces in major cities, said they'd tightened security around churches in and around the northern city of Mosul, the site of the most ferocious sectarian attacks since the American withdrawal.
One security officer, who asked not to be named for his own safety, said authorities set up more checkpoints and deployed more patrols "to protect houses of worship, especially churches, so violent actions against religious minorities won't take place." A curfew was in effect for part of the day Monday in the area.
Some analysts suggest that extremists are targeting Christians again because they know it will provoke outrage in the West, as a spate of attacks did last year and in 2004.
In Baghdad, security forces are preparing for 2 million to 3 million pilgrims next week to converge on a sacred mosque in northwest Baghdad. Many of them will come from Iran because the shrine commemorates a religious figure who's important to Shiites.
Earlier this year, suicide bombers, including two females, killed hundreds of worshippers at the shrine.
(Tharp reports for the Merced (Calif.) Sun-Star. Strobel reported from Washington. McClatchy special correspondent Sahar Issa in Baghdad and a special correspondent in Mosul who can't be named for security reasons contributed to this report.)
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