Iraqi Sunni official announces resignation
Iraq's Sunni finance minister drew cheers from anti-government protesters Friday when he announced he will resign from the government, further intensifying the country's political crisis nearly a decade after the U.S.-led invasion.
In a separate incident, Iraqi officials said a Russian-made rocket fired from Syria exploded well inside Iraqi territory. The rocket is likely to heighten worries that violence from Syria's civil war could spill across the border.
Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi's decision to leave marks the first resignation of a senior Sunni member of the Shiite-led government since a wave of anti-government protests began following the December arrest of his bodyguards on suspicion of terrorism-related activities.
Sunnis' feelings of perceived discrimination by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government are fueling the anger of demonstrators who are happy that al-Issawi ended his association with the al-Maliki administration.
"I am presenting my resignation in front of you. I do not care about a government that does not respect the Iraqi blood and its people," al-Issawi told thousands gathered in the western city of Ramadi, the epicenter of the demonstrations.
The protesters cheered in approval.
The resignation, however, has to be formally endorsed by al-Maliki, leaving al-Issawi's status in government unclear for now.
Ali al-Moussawi, a spokesman for the prime minister, said al-Maliki would not accept the finance minister's resignation until a previously undisclosed investigation into alleged "financial and administrative irregularities" is complete. He refused to give further details.
Officials said the rocket launched from Syria landed about 40 kilometers (25 miles) inside Iraqi territory, near a village in the northwestern province of Ninevah.
Abdul Aal al-Obeidi, the mayor of the Iraqi town of Tal Afar, said the Russian-made rocket landed in an open area close to the nearby village of Youz Tapa.
Ninevah governor Atheel al-Nujaifi condemned the rocket attack and demanded the Iraqi government take whatever measures necessary to protect the Iraqi people from such attacks in the future.
"This attack put the lives of our people at risk and we hope that the launching of this rocket was not a deliberate act," said al-Nujaifi.
There were conflicting reports on the type of rocket that was fired, with some officials saying it was a Scud and others describing it as a smaller Grad. No casualties or damage was reported.
Iraqi officials have repeatedly warned that Iraq could suffer as Syria's security deteriorates.
In an interview with The Associated Press this week, al-Maliki predicted that a victory for rebels in the Syrian civil war would create a new extremist haven and destabilize the wider Middle East, sparking sectarian wars in his own country and in Lebanon.
The war in Syria has sharp sectarian overtones, with predominantly Sunni rebels fighting a regime dominated by Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Rebel groups have increasingly embraced radical Islamic ideologies, and some of their greatest battlefield successes have been carried out by Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaida-affiliated group which the U.S. has designated as a terrorist organization.
That is exacerbating rifts between Iraq's own Sunnis, whose members held many senior positions in Saddam Hussein's regime, and the Shiites whose sect rose to prominence following the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Earlier Friday, two car bombs struck a livestock market south of the Iraqi capital, killing five and wounding dozens in what was the second such attack in as many days.
The twin bombing targeted the market in the Shiite city of Diawaniyah, 130 kilometers (80 miles) south of Baghdad, at the height of trading when many people pour into the market at the start of the weekend.
The head of the provincial council, Jubair al-Jabouri, said five people were killed and 70 were wounded in the attack. He blamed the blasts on al-Qaida, though there was no immediate claim of responsibility.
A day earlier, a similar attack tore a crowded livestock market in the town of Aziziyah, also south of Baghdad, killing three and wounding eight people.
Violence in Iraq has fallen since the height of sectarian fighting in 2006 and 2007, but deadly attacks are still frequent. On Thursday, bombings in Baghdad, Aziziyah and another town south of the Iraqi capital killed at least 22 people.
Associated Press writer Adam Schreck contributed.