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Suicide bomber kills three

A suicide bomber blew up a van disguised as an ambulance in front of a hotel Wednesday after speeding through a security barrier in the heart of Baghdad, killing three people _ including a South African _ and injuring 17.

Also, in the southern city of Nasiriyah, about 10,000 followers of a radical Shiite Muslim cleric forced the coalition-appointed provincial governor to vacate his office, insisting they would recognize only elected leaders.

The Nasiriyah protests, led by Muqtada al-Sadr, a rival of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, signaled the Shiites' growing assertiveness. They demanded that provincial governor Sabri al-Roumaith step down.

Coalition officials said the governor left his office to defuse tensions but did not resign.

The bombing at the Shaheen, a hotel frequented by Westerners, confirmed intelligence warnings that insurgents might use ambulances to evade security checks.

It also reinforced fears voiced by U.S. officials that insurgents would step up attacks ahead of the planned July 1 transfer of power by the U.S.-led coalition to Iraqis. It was the second suicide bombing in the capital in less than two weeks.

Witnesses said a white van with Red Crescent markings drove through an opening in the barbed wire and concrete cylinder barriers on Masbah Street about 6:40 a.m. They said guards opened fire at the van but it managed to reach the front of the Shaheen Hotel, where it exploded. The U.S. military said the van was packed with 400 to 500 pounds of explosives.

Police and the U.S. military said four people, including the bomber, were killed. One was South African, according to South African Foreign Ministry spokesman Ronnie Mamoepa. He said four South Africans were among the injured.