BAGHDAD, Iraq – A series of roadside bombs and explosions damaged a Shiite shrine east of the volatile city of Baqouba late Saturday — the second time this year that a site sacred to Iraq's Shiite majority has been targeted.
In Baghdad, gunmen killed the son of Iraq's top judge as the country's prime minister-designate struggled to form a national unity government that could eventually open the way to stability.
The bombing at the Imam Abdullah Ali al-Hadi shrine, which caused no injuries, could have significant repercussions — particularly in the Baqouba area, a mixed Sunni Arab-Shiite region where sectarian tensions are running high.
The blasts occurred about 11 p.m. at the shrine, according to the Diyala provincial police Joint Coordination Center and Interior Ministry Lt. Col. Falah al-Mohammedawi.
On Feb. 22 bombs heavily damaged the Golden Dome in Samarra, which holds the tomb of Imam Abdullah's father. That attack triggered a wave of reprisal attacks against Sunnis, dramatically escalating sectarian tension and pushing the country to the brink of civil war.
Iraqi lawmakers have been struggling for months to set up a new national unity government which they hope will calm sectarian and ethnic tensions and sap steam from the insurgency. But negotiations have been progressing at a glacial pace, leading some lawmakers to complain that the process was being hampered by self-interest and sectarianism.
Attacks outside Baghdad killed five Iraqis and a U.S. soldier, part of the undercurrent of daily violence marring the slow-moving political process.
Frustrated with such violence in the south, the governor of oil-rich Basra, Mohammed al-Waeli, asked his provincial council to fire the regional police chief and the defense ministry to sack an Iraqi army general.
In one success, Kurdish security forces in the north said they arrested five men who had escaped on May 9 from the U.S. military Fort Suse Theater internment facility near Sulaimaniyah, 160 miles northeast of Baghdad.
With a May 22 constitutional deadline to form the new Cabinet rapidly approaching, Prime Minister-designate Nouri al-Maliki urged an important Shiite party to rejoin talks on distributing ministry posts.
Parliament, which must approve the makeup of the government, was to convene Sunday, and some lawmakers had suggested that al-Maliki could present some of his Cabinet. He also has the option of appointing himself to head ministries such as defense and interior if the parties cannot agree on who will run them by the May 22 deadline.
Wrangling over the makeup of a government that will be representative of all religious groups and political trends has delayed for months the formation of a new government following the successful Dec. 15 legislative elections, which saw a record turnout among Sunni Arabs that form the heart of the insurgency.
The Shiite Fadhila party withdrew from negotiations and removed the support of its 15 deputies for the 130-strong United Iraqi Alliance last Friday after complaining, in part, over al-Maliki's failure to give it the country's top oil post, which it held under outgoing Shiite Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari.
Al-Maliki said "Fadhila is part of the Alliance. If there is a dispute over ministerial posts, it can be resolved through dialogue."
Fadhila spokesman Sheik Sabah al-Saedi said earlier that the party's 15 legislators in the 275-member parliament would form an opposition bloc. He denied the oil portfolio was behind the decision to withdraw.
"The main reason behind our withdrawal from the new government is that we do believe that Iraq needs a strong and competent government that is able to consider the national interests rather than narrow ones," al-Saedi told AP Television News.
Although Fadhila has relatively few seats in parliament, it controls the provincial government in Basra, the country's second largest city and the center of the vast southern oil fields.
On Saturday, police found the bodies of Ahmed Midhat al-Mahmoud, 22, a lawyer, and two of his bodyguards in northern Baghdad's Azamiyah district, said Hasan Sabri, the head of the local council, and Iraq's deputy justice minister, Busho Ibrahim Ali.
The killings came five months after the judge, Midhat al-Mahmoud, survived a suicide bomb attack against his home.
Ahmed Midhat al-Mahmoud's father heads the Supreme Judicial Council, which swears in all judges and parliament, among other responsibilities.
The al-Mahmoud family is Shiite and the three bodies were found dumped onto a street in the mostly Sunni Arab neighborhood of Azamiyah, Sabri and Ali said.
The killings were the latest carried out against government officials or their families. They could also be part of a series of killings carried out by death squads and militias, who have kidnapped and killed hundreds of Sunnis and Shiites — often motivated by sectarian hatred.
Elsewhere, a U.S. soldier was killed by a roadside bomb south of Baghdad, the military said. The attack raised to at least 2,437 the number of members of the U.S. military who have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
Five Iraqis also were killed in drive-by shootings Saturday, including a tribal sheik, officials said.
Separately, a roadside bomb exploded near the home of a former army lieutenant colonel in the village of Balad Ruz, 15 miles east of Baqouba, authorities said. Lt. Col. Hussein Shams was seriously wounded, and an Iraqi army patrol rushing to the scene was hit by a second roadside bomb, wounding an officer and a soldier, the Joint Coordination Center said.