Iraq's prime minister said Saturday that a bombing earlier this week inside Baghdad's Green Zone was an assassination attempt against him, but he defended the nation's armed forces and said the breach did not signal a deterioration in security.
During an interview with The Associated Press, Nouri al-Maliki said the building housing the legislature or the parliament speaker also could have been targets but that preliminary information suggested the bombers were trying to get him.
"The preliminary intelligence information says that the car was due to enter parliament and stay there and not to explode. It was supposed to explode on the day I entered parliament," said al-Maliki, who was not in or near the parliament building when the bomb actually went off.
Monday's blast inside the central Baghdad zone, which is supposed to be one of Iraq's most secure areas, has raised new concerns about whether Iraqi forces are able to protect the country when the U.S. military leaves by the end of the year.
At the time of the explosion, officials said they did not know if it was the result of rocket or mortar fire into the Green Zone or a bomb, and it was unclear if anyone was being targeted specifically.
The Baghdad military spokesman, Qassim al-Moussawi, said late Friday that al-Maliki was the target. He said the driver of the vehicle tried to join a convoy of other vehicles going into the parliament grounds but was turned back by officials at the checkpoint because he didn't have proper identification. The driver then drove to the parking lot just opposite the parliament entrance, and the vehicle exploded seconds later.
Al-Maliki said the bomb had likely been assembled inside the Green Zone and was not very powerful.
A body was found near the wrecked car, but authorities were still trying to determine the person's identity and whether he was the bomber or a bystander, officials have said. Two other people were wounded.
Al-Maliki played down any suggestion that the attack, in an area that is also home to the U.S. Embassy as well as many Iraqi government institutions, demonstrated any weakness in security ahead of the U.S. military withdrawal. All American forces are to be out of the country by the end of this month.
"I don't think that this says something about the security situation in the country. Such breaches can happen in any country or anywhere," the prime minister said.
"It was a very simple operation," he said. "I cannot see in this operation any indication of a security deterioration in Iraq."
He blamed al-Qaida in Iraq and Saddam Hussein's Baath Party for the violence.
"They are opposing me, the parliament speaker and the parliament and the whole political process, so whomever the victim of their operation will be, it is a victory for them," he said.
The prime minister said he had previously shared information with the parliament speaker, Osama al-Nujaifi, that there might be an attempt to kill one of them at the parliament and that he advised the parliament speaker to exercise caution.
Al-Maliki said Iraqi security forces were still looking for at least four people believed to have played a role in the plot.
Meanwhile, rioters attacked dozens of liquor stores, a massage parlor and hotels after being stirred up by fiery sermons in a predominantly Kurdish city in north Iraq, police officials said Saturday.
The Kurdish-ruled north was spared much of the violence that engulfed the rest of the country from 2003 to 2008, but there have been several outbreaks of unrest against the rule of the two main secular-leaning parties.
The region also is home to a range of Islamist groups, including organizations involved in mainstream politics as well as smaller, more radical networks.
Friday's rampage began after midday prayers in the town of Zakho, some 300 miles (475 kilometers) northwest of Baghdad. Thirty people were injured, according to hospital official Imad Barwari.
The police officials spoke on condition of anonymity, as they were not authorized to speak to the media.
In retaliation for the initial rioting, angry crowds then attacked offices belonging to a Kurdistan-based Islamist party, officials said.
Police on Saturday also arrested a leader of Kurdistan's largest Islamist opposition party, which has denied any connection to the attacks.
Associated Press writers Bushra Juhi in Baghdad and Yahya Barzanji in Sulaimaniyah contributed to this report.