At least 18 people were wounded yesterday by a car bomb targeting a Kurdish official in the divided northern oil city of Kirkuk as Iraq's new parliament was set to elect a speaker amid tight security.
At least four of Baghdad's main bridges were closed to traffic, while Iraqi police and soldiers fanned out on the streets and US helicopters patrolled the skies for the session, only the second since the historic Jan. 30 elections.
The Kirkuk bomb went off in the path of a convoy carrying the city's water chief, Abdulqader Zanganah, a member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), in the second assassination attempt against a KDP official in three days. Several buildings in the predominantly Kurdish neighborhood of Rahimawa were also damaged by the blast, said the area's police chief, Colonel Adel Zeinalbeddin.
He said preliminary inquiries suggested that a bomb-rigged vehicle parked on a sidestreet had been detonated by remote control.
KDP leader Massoud Barzani has been one of the most outspoken champions of Kurdish demands for Kirkuk to be incorporated in their autonomous region in northern Iraq, despite the opposition of the city's Turkmen minority and Arabs settled in the city under Saddam Hussein's regime.
The Kurdish alliance emerged as the second largest bloc from January's elections after the main Shiite list and its support is vital for the two-thirds majority required to approve a new government.
The Kurds have made the Kirkuk issue a central demand in coalition talks, which are still dragging on more than eight weeks after the election.
MPs were to meet yesterday for a largely formalistic session to elect a speaker and two deputies after their inaugural session on March 16.
"I hope the assembly will continue its meetings because we have a lot of work ahead of us and millions of Iraqis have pinned their hopes on this body," said Sami al-Askari, a member of the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance (UIA).
Both Shiites and Kurds have agreed to award the speakership to one of around 20 Sunni Arabs who won seats in the 275-member national assembly in a bid to reach out to the embittered community that largely boycotted the election.
The Shiites were backing UIA member Sheikh Fawaz al-Jarba, a tribal leader from the powerful Shammar tribal confederation, which straddles the sectarian divide.
A Shiite negotiator said the Kurds wanted Hajem al-Hassani, the outgoing industry minister, who won a seat in parliament as part of the list of outgoing President Sheikh Ghazi al-Yawar, a Sunni Arab.
The Sunnis were meeting among themselves and expected to give a name yesterday morning, said Shiite negotiator Jawad Maliky.
Meanwhile, the Romanian foreign ministry announced that three journalists working for the private television station Prima TV were feared missing in Iraq.
"Contacted by the management of Prima TV about the possible disappearance in Iraq of three of its journalists, the ministry and the main intelligence services have formed a crisis cell," a statement said.
Prima TV's news director Dan Dumitru said the station's management had received a telephone call around 5pm GMT on Monday during which they "heard voices speaking Arabic as well as journalist Marie-Jeanne Ion calling out in English: `Don't kill us, we are journalists, we don't have any money.'"