updated 11/22/2009 10:22:44 AM ET 2009-11-22T15:22:44

Irish Republican Army dissidents left a 400-pound car bomb outside police reform headquarters in Belfast but the homemade device failed to detonate, Northern Ireland's police commander said Sunday.

As politicians warned of a rising threat from IRA diehards, three other suspected IRA dissidents were arrested Sunday in another attack on police.

Chief Constable Matt Baggott said Saturday night's abortive bomb attack on the Northern Ireland Policing Board office in Belfast's docklands represented an attack on the province's entire peace process.

That process has created a joint Catholic-Protestant government and growing support for law and order, achievements that the dissidents hope to undermine.

Two men seen running away
The explosives-laden car caught on fire but didn't explode and caused no damage to the Policing Board building, where a cross-community panel oversees police operations.

Security guards said they saw two men running away. The attackers' suspected getaway vehicle was later found burning — to destroy forensic evidence — in the nearby New Lodge district, a poor housing project long known as an IRA stronghold.

Around the same time Saturday, a police patrol came under gun attack in Garrison, a lakeside border village in the westernmost corner of Northern Ireland. Baggott said police returned fire with two shots, but nobody was hit.

Two suspected IRA dissidents were arrested near Garrison and a third across the border in the Republic of Ireland on suspicion of involvement in the shooting.

A moderate Catholic member of the Policing Board, Alex Attwood, said the IRA dissidents "are broadening the scale of their attacks on democracy."

"Those who are trying to create a climate of fear cannot be allowed to win," said Belfast Mayor Naomi Long. "The best way to combat these thugs is to make devolution (power-sharing) work and show everyone that it won't be destabilized by anything."

Opposed to 1997 cease-fire
Breakaway IRA factions are opposed to the outlawed group's 1997 cease-fire and have repeatedly targeted key buildings and security-force patrols with car bombs. The dissidents are based within the Irish Catholic minority, which is divided over whether to support Northern Ireland's police force.

One splinter group, the Real IRA, committed Northern Ireland's deadliest terror strike, killing 29 people in its August 1998 car-bombing of the town of Omagh. The group also exploded a car bomb outside British Broadcasting Corp. news offices in London in March 2001, injuring one person.

Since then, all of the dissidents' car bombs have failed, either because they did not explode properly, were intercepted or were abandoned short of their targets.

Rivals team up
The Real IRA and a rival splinter group, the Continuity IRA, combined in March to gun down two off-duty soldiers and a policeman. Those were the first slayings of security force members in Northern Ireland since 1998, the year of the Good Friday peace accord.

Experts on paramilitarism warned recently that the splinter groups are receiving technical assistance from some IRA veterans disillusioned with their movement's decision to reject militarism in favor of cooperation with Northern Ireland's British Protestant majority.

The IRA formally renounced violence and disarmed in 2005 and the IRA's Sinn Fein party accepted the legitimacy of the police in 2007 by agreeing to join the Policing Board in Belfast. Those historic peace moves spurred Protestant leaders to accept Sinn Fein as partners in a unity government.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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