BAGHDAD -- United Nations officials have reported that Iraqi military sentries secretly attached a time bomb to the bottom of a car carrying three U.N. guards. The incident set the stage for an escalation in the Iraq crisis.
The bomb was discovered and safely defused Thursday, within hours of the announcement by Saddam Hussein's Revolutionary Command Council that it would "choose the appropriate methods and timing to confront" the allied imposition of a "no-fly zone" in southern Iraq.
In Washington, a senior Bush administration official said the United States plans to consult with the Persian Gulf coalition allies to fashion a response to the attempted assassination of the U.N. guards.
The episode occurred near Irbil, Iraq, about 250 miles north of where allied warplanes continued patrolling yesterday without being challenged.
"This is the first time they have been caught red-handed [in an attempt to harm U.N. personnel in Iraq]," said the administration official, who declined to be identified.
As reported to United Nations headquarters in New York, the incident involved three U.N. guards who were intercepted by Iraqi soldiers, who demanded to search their car.
The guards objected and got out of the car to argue against the search of United Nations property, the report said. In the midst of the confrontation, they saw someone slip under the car and apparently tamper with the undercarriage.
After they cleared the roadblock south of Irbil, the final government checkpoint before entering the Kurdish security zone protected by Western allies, the U.N. guards continued until they reached a checkpoint manned by Kurdish Pesh Merga fighters.
They asked the Pesh Merga to search under the car. According to the report, the Pesh Merga found a time bomb.
"I cannot deny it; the incident happened," Gualtiero Fulcheri, coordinator of the United Nation's interagency humanitarian program in Iraq, said when he was asked yesterday about this report.
"I would prefer the details come from New York," he said. "This is a very serious incident."
In Washington, the U.S. official said that as a first step, the United Nations would issue a sharp protest soon after summoning Iraq's U.N. ambassador, Abdul al-Amir al-Anbari.
Word of the incident was relayed yesterday to senior Bush administration officials by the U.N. secretariat in New York, after the news had arrived from U.N. officers in Baghdad.
Iraqi foreign press center officials in Baghdad were unable to arrange an interview for a response to the allegation.
The U.N. guards, lightly armed security officers assigned to keep watch over United Nations personnel and property, have come under attack in the northern security zone.
One was killed in sniper fire; another was injured in an explosion. No one claimed responsibility for the attacks, and no one has been apprehended.
The northern Kurdish zone has sometimes been the scene of factional violence pitting one Kurdish group against another. The genesis of the attacks on the U.N. guards has remained uncertain.