BAGHDAD, Iraq -- A member of Iraq's Governing Council was seriously wounded Saturday when at least five men with automatic rifles ambushed her car, in the first assassination attempt on an Iraqi serving in the U.S.-backed interim government.The brazen Saturday morning assault on Aqila Hashimi, one of only three women on the 25-person council, dealt a fresh blow to U.S. efforts to build a new political order here and came after some members complained that they were in danger of assassination from elements labeling Iraqis who work with the Americans as collaborators. The ambush, which seriously wounded Hashimi's driver and her brother Zaid, who was acting as her bodyguard, also raised anew questions about the extent of U.S. control five months after its forces occupied Iraq.
No one claimed responsibility for the attack on the veteran diplomatic worker, a Shiite who was the only Governing Council member to have served in ousted President Saddam Hussein's administration. But suspicion immediately fell on remnants of regime and on religious militants and foreign fighters who violently reject the U.S. occupation of Iraq and target both foreign forces and Iraqis they call traitors.
Five to seven attackers, waiting in a pickup truck, opened fire on Hashimi's two-car convoy only a few hundred yards from her western Baghdad home as she was leaving for her office, witnesses said. She had been scheduled to depart later in the day for the United States, as part of Iraq's delegation to this week's inaugurating session of the U.N. General Assembly.
The U.S.-led occupation authority itself acknowledged more than a month ago that council members faced "great personal risk." Ahmad Chalabi, who holds the council's rotating presidency, issued a statement Saturday noting that Hashimi "was threatened repeatedly" but chose to continue as a Governing Council member.
"The members of the Governing Council and ministers will not be intimidated by the terrorists," Chalabi declared. "They will continue to do their patriotic duty to move Iraq toward freedom, democracy and sovereignty."
Attacks by insurgents have taken a mounting toll on U.S. forces here. In addition, a series of four large bombings in August killed more than 100 people, including the country's main Shiite political leader, the Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr Hakim, and the U.N. envoy to Iraq, Sergio de Vieira de Mello.
Hashimi had eschewed a heavy contingent of bodyguards from outside her family, relatives said.
"God will protect me," one of her brothers, Aqil, quoted her as having told him just the night before the attack.
Speaking Saturday evening after returning from her hospital bedside, Aqil said his sister was pulling through courageously from at least two bullet wounds to the abdomen and another in the leg.
"She is talking," he said. "She is breathing normally." The first thing she asked about after she regained consciousness was the condition of her driver, identified only as Sufa, and her two brothers Zaid and Taib, who had been with her, he said.
Hashimi was saved when her driver managed to swerve past the first car in her entourage and the attackers, getting away at high speed and ultimately plowing the white Land Cruiser into a home. The attackers started to pursue her at first but turned away in the face of gunfire from Zaid Hashimi and from security guards at an adjacent school who came to the rescue, witnesses said.
Hashimi was rushed to an Iraqi hospital where officials said she underwent surgery. Later, she was transferred in a convoy of U.S. armored vehicles and military ambulances to the U.S.-run Ibn Sina Hospital, located near a former presidential palace.
Several staff at Baghdad's Al Yarmouk Hospital said Hashimi was conscious and speaking when she first arrived, but bleeding badly. "She has at least one bullet in her abdomen and some other injuries," said Dr. Ali Abdul Muhsin. "Several organs were injured -- her intestines, her liver."
Aqil said she was scheduled to undergo a second operation in the early hours Sunday, and he said doctors seemed optimistic about her prognosis. The second surgery would explore the area around her pancreas to see what damage had been caused there and possibly to remove a bullet or fragments still lodged there, he said.
The driver suffered bullet wounds to his back, said neighbors who helped the victims after the attack, and Zaid was also reported injured, although the extent of his wounds was not clear.
"This senseless attack is not just against the person of Aqila Hashimi," said L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq. "It is an attack against the people of Iraq and against the common goals we share for the establishment of a fully democratic government."
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After the Governing Council was formed in early July, reports circulated that Saddam himself supposedly offered a bounty of $25,000 to anyone who killed a council member.
Although she once worked closely with Tarik Aziz, the former foreign minister and deputy prime minister of Iraq, in the Foreign Ministry, Hashimi was a technocrat and not a pro-Saddam partisan, said her cousin Medhi Hashimi.
"She was never a Baathist. She was an Iraqi citizen," he said with evident pride as he stood in front of her house. A coterie of grim-faced relatives cradled automatic rifles in their arms and looked over visitors suspiciously.
Abdul Wahab Qasab, a political analyst at the University of Baghdad, said the ongoing security vacuum in Iraq was the main reason behind the assassination attempt.
Opponents of the U.S. occupation authority "have the initiative," he said. "They can do whatever they like."
He also saw Hashimi as the council's most obvious target for assassination by militants, "because she is a woman and because of her ties to the former regime."
Hamid Majid Moussa, a Governing Council member from the Iraqi Communist Party, agreed that her ties to the old regime might have made her more of a target to loyalists, because Baathists whose hands are not "stained with blood" might be encouraged by her example to cooperate with the Americans.
Times staff writer Alissa J. Rubin contributed to this report.