SANAA (Reuters) - A car bomb killed three people at the Iranian ambassador's residence in Yemen on Wednesday, an attack claimed by al Qaeda militants who oppose Iran and the Yemeni Shi'ite rebels who control the capital Sanaa.
Wednesday's bombing, the second in Sanaa claimed by al Qaeda in as many months, blew a large hole in the Iranian residence and sent rubble flying across the street of the well-guarded diplomatic quarter of the city, a Reuters witness said.
A Yemeni civilian and two soldiers were killed, a medical official said. Seventeen people, mostly employees at a nearby oil ministry building, were wounded. The ambassador was unhurt, having left his residence for the embassy 10 minutes earlier, security officials said.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) claimed responsibility on its Twitter account. It said its fighters parked the car and left the scene, killing several Iranian employees and local guards. Security officials said it was a suicide attack and no Iranian staff were harmed.
Iran, the Middle East's major Shi'ite power, backs the Houthi rebel movement that seized control of Sanaa in September and has since taken swathes of the country's north and center.
AQAP, which claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in Sanaa on Oct. 9 that killed 47 people at a Houthi checkpoint, opposes the political ascendancy of the Houthis, who took over Sanaa after weeks of anti-government demonstrations.
The hardline Sunni militants see Shi'ites as heretics and decry Iranian influence in politically volatile Yemen.
The United States, which is at odds with Iran on a number of issues from its nuclear program to its support for militant groups in the Middle East, quickly condemned the bombing.
"Attacks on diplomatic facilities and against diplomats contravene all international norms and can never be justified or excused," the State Department said in a statement.
"Glass shattered on me from the force of the explosion," Bashir al-Ossaimy, who works at a drug company opposite the residence, told Reuters. He had two bandages on his face, a swollen eye and a bloodstained jacket and shirt.
Inside the embassy compound, an Iranian flag was draped over the rubble. Part of the perimeter wall had caved in and several Houthi militia officials were on the scene, as well as regular Yemeni security officials.
Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian urged Yemen to "quickly identify and punish the culprits behind the terrorist act", according to the IRNA news agency.
Western and Gulf Arab countries, which have supported Yemen's U.N.-backed political transition to democracy since 2012 after decades of autocracy, are worried that instability in Yemen could allow al Qaeda to establish a stronghold.
Sunni Saudi Arabia, traditionally the dominant outside influence in Yemen, is also concerned about the Houthis' friendship with Shi'ite Iran. Riyadh fears the Houthis may seek to emulate the king-making role played in Lebanon by the Shi’ite militia Hezbollah there.
Iranian diplomats have been targeted in Yemen before. One diplomat is being held hostage by suspected Sunni militants and another was killed this year when he resisted a kidnapping attempt.
Writing by Noah Browning; Additional reporting by David Storey in Washington; Editing by Robin Pomeroy and Grant McCool