Four US soldiers and their Iraqi interpreter were killed by a roadside bomb north-west of Baghdad today and at least two dozen Iraqis died in violence across the country, as politicians put the final touches on a national unity government they hope will restore security to Iraq.
Outgoing Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari held his last cabinet meeting ahead of Saturday’s presentation to the parliament of the new government.
In Basra, Iraq’s second largest city, where most of Britain’s 8,000 soldiers are based, police chief General Hassan Swadi narrowly escaped an assassination attempt when a roadside bomb hit his convoy as he was heading to work this morning, said police spokesman Karim al-Zeidi.
The blast damaged one vehicle but caused no casualties.
Britain’s new defence minister, Des Browne, visited troops in Basra and said the situation in the oil-rich region was under control.
Violence has been escalating in Basra between armed groups and some militias, and Iraqi government officials have expressed fears that it could spiral out of control.
Hundreds of people have staged demonstrations in recent days and Basra’s governor last week fired the provincial police chief amid charges that he was doing little to control the violence and crime.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani discussed Basra with his Shiite and Sunni vice presidents, Adil Abdul-Mahdi and Tariq al-Hashimi.
“We are following this issue closely, not because other parts of Iraq are violence-free, but because of the importance of the city with regard to the security of the south as a whole and the economy of Iraq,” Abdul-Mahdi said.
Prime Minister-designate Nouri al-Maliki was looking over the final cut of candidates for the defence and interior ministries, and had reportedly shortlisted a small group for both.
Sunni Arabs want the defence ministry, which runs the Army, while the Shiites want the interior ministry that controls the police.
The failure to reach agreement on the two posts had delayed the formation of the new cabinet after elections last December 15.
Without an eventual agreement, no resolution is possible of the basic conflict between Shiites and Sunnis.
It has been suggested that al-Maliki, a Shiite, might appoint himself to head the two ministries until all parties can agree on the two appointees.
Saturday would be two days ahead of a 30-day deadline for al-Maliki to present a cabinet, and it was unlikely that he would take the risk of presenting a deal that parliament would reject.
In violence around Iraq, meanwhile, clashes broke out in the Sunni Arab town of Ramadi, an insurgent stronghold and the capital of western Anbar province.
Ramadi hospital reported that at least one Iraqi was killed when his car was hit by a mortar.
Iraqi police said four officers were killed and another three injured in a mortar attack apparently targeting an American base in the nearby city of Fallujah.
According to Lieutenant Omar Ahmed of the Fallujah police, another three police officers were injured.
Four US soldiers and their Iraqi interpreter died when a roadside bomb struck their vehicle north-west of Baghdad, the US command said. It had earlier said that a US sailor had died today in Anbar province.
The names of the soldiers and sailor were being withheld pending notification of next of kin. Details of the attack on the four were not released, nor were details of the bomb attack and the fighting that killed the sailor.
The five deaths raised to at least 2,455 the number of members of the US military who have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
Gunmen stopped a minibus in south-western Baghdad and killed all eight Iraqis aboard, a group of car mechanics and the driver.
A roadside bomb exploded near a police patrol in northern Baghdad’s Waziriya neighbourhood, killing three police officers and five bystanders. Another nine people were injured, police said.
Elsewhere, 15 taekwondo athletes were kidnapped in western Iraq while driving to a training camp in neighbouring Jordan, and coalition forces killed three insurgents and wounded 10 in fighting in and around the northern city of Mosul, the US command said.
Taekwondo is a Korean martial art and Olympic sport popular in many parts of the world.