BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Sectarian strife remains a great threat despite improving security, Iraqi leaders said at a conference on Wednesday, hours after a powerful roadside bomb exploded not far from where they met in central Baghdad.
The bomb, targeting a passing American military convoy, killed a U.S. soldier and a civilian and wounded seven people including five soldiers, the U.S. military said.
It exploded just outside the heavily fortified Green Zone that houses the U.S. embassy and government ministries. Police said two civilians were killed. Three U.S. soldiers were also killed north of Baghdad, the military added.
The explosion in Baghdad was close to a checkpoint where hundreds of Iraqis who work inside the sprawling complex queue every morning.
It was caused by an explosively formed penetrator, a type of roadside bomb the U.S. military says Iran is supplying to Shi’ite militias in Iraq. Iran denies the charge.
In a sign of progress in attempts to heal sectarian divisions, Iraq’s cabinet submitted to parliament a draft bill that would ease curbs on former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party joining the civil service and military.
The cabinet approved changes to the draft late on Tuesday, government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said in a statement.
Officials had previously said the bill had already been given to parliament. It was unclear what prompted the new amendments to a bill that Washington regards as vital to fostering national reconciliation.
Many Baath party members were Sunnis who feel persecuted by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government.
South of Baghdad, police sources said a bomber wearing a vest packed with explosives killed two people and wounded six at a meeting of local Sunni Arab tribal sheikhs in Iskandariya, a volatile town in an area known as the “triangle of death”.
Iraqi leaders gathered at a reconstruction conference in the Green Zone, not far from the Baghdad blast site, and said money alone would not solve Iraq’s problems.
Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, a Sunni Arab, said Iraq had suffered more than just material destruction in a sectarian conflict that tipped it to the brink of all-out civil war.
“The greatest destruction was the social fabric,” Hashemi told the conference. “This will remain the principal obstacle to security and stability.”
Intra-sectarian trouble remains a big hurdle as well as conflict between majority Shi’ites and minority Sunni Arabs.
On Wednesday, security guards from the Sunni Endowment, a state body that runs Sunni Muslim religious sites, surrounded a mosque used by the Muslim Scholars Association, an influential body of hardline Sunni clerics accused by the Iraqi government of fomenting violence.
A statement by the Muslim Scholars Association said its staff had been evicted from the Um al-Qura mosque in western Baghdad and a radio broadcast from the mosque had been stopped.
There was no immediate reason given for the raid but the two groups have long been rivals.
A bomb blast killed two U.S. soldiers and wounded four in Diyala province northeast of Baghdad on Tuesday, the military said. Another soldier was shot and killed near northern Mosul.
Their deaths took the total of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq to 3,863, according to the independent Web site icasualties.org.
“We need to remind ourselves that this fight is not over,” U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker told the reconstruction conference.
An extra 30,000 U.S. troops, improving Iraqi security forces and the growing use of neighborhood police units have been credited for big drops in U.S. military and Iraqi civilian casualties in the previous two months.
Additional reporting by Dean Yates, Ross Colvin, Aseel Kami and Wissam Mohammed in Baghdad, editing by Andrew Roche