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Iraqi vice president wounded in blast

Sustains minor injuries, released from hospital

BAGHDAD -- Iraq's Shi'ite vice president narrowly escaped assassination yesterday as a blast ripped through a government meeting hall just hours after it was searched by US teams with bomb-sniffing dogs. At least 10 people were killed.

Adel Abdul-Mahdi was slightly wounded in the explosion, which splintered chairs, destroyed a speakers' podium, and sent a chilling message that suspected Sunni militants can strike anywhere despite a major security crackdown across Baghdad.

As US forces sealed off the area around the municipal building, investigators grappled with the troubling question of how the bomb was smuggled into the ministry of public works -- a seven-story structure with crack surveillance systems from its days as offices for Saddam Hussein's feared intelligence service.

The bomb -- possibly hidden in the podium -- went off moments after the minister for public works finished a speech in the third-floor chamber, witnesses said. Abdul-Mahdi had made a welcoming address a few minutes earlier, raising speculation the bomb could have been on a timer-trigger that missed the vice president by sheer luck.

Among those killed were several ministry employees, police said. More than 25 were wounded, including the public works minister, Riyad Gharib.

Abdul-Mahdi -- smothered by his bodyguards in an instant -- suffered minor leg injuries and was hospitalized for tests, his office said. He was later released.

"I heard a big explosion," said Tagrid Ali, a public works ministry employee who attended the gathering to honor outstanding workers. "I fell to the ground, and the whole place was filled with black smoke."

Suspicion for the attack fell on Sunni insurgents, who have waged nonstop bombings and attacks against Iraq's majority Shi'ites for cooperating with the US-backed government.

Abdul-Mahdi is one of two vice presidents. The other, Tariq al-Hashemi, is Sunni.

An Associated Press photographer witnessed security forces hustling a man from the building, but there were no immediate reports of any arrests.

"The aggression against you this day is further proof that these groups are doing their best to destroy Iraq's unity," said a message to the vice president from Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, who heads the country's largest Shi'ite political group.

Even as Iraqis learned of the attack, word was coming from neighboring Jordan that their president, Jalal Talabani, was facing more medical tests.

Talabani, from Iraq's Kurdish north, was taken to Amman after falling unconscious Sunday. His son, Qubad Talabani, said the 73-year-old leader was "up and about" and blamed the episode on fatigue and exhaustion.

"He'll be back in Baghdad soon," added Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.

But his private physician, Dr. Yedkar Hikmat, would give no timetable on his discharge, saying only that rumors Talabani had heart problems were "categorically wrong."

The bombing of the municipal building was another blow to assertions by US and Iraqi forces that a nearly two-week-old security sweep across Baghdad is making headway.

On Sunday, more than 40 people were killed in a suicide blast at a mostly Shi'ite college.