A roadside bomb killed a southern governor Monday, the second provincial boss assassinated in nine days and a likely prelude to an even more brutal contest among rival Shiite militias battling for control of Iraq's oil-rich south.
During the second day of his groundbreaking fact-finding tour, the French foreign minister warned Iraqi officials against complacency in the face of violence.
And Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sought improved relations and help in the immediate neighborhood at the start of a three-day mission to Syria. Iran said its firebrand president would soon pay a first-ever call on the Iraqi leader in Baghdad.
The diplomatic flurry was playing out against an equally intense round of political meetings in Baghdad as al-Maliki and his Shiite and Kurdish allies have sought to entice moderate Sunnis into their new alliance.
The speed of activity, both political and diplomatic, was nearly dizzying as the Sept. 15 deadline approached for the Bush administration to report to Congress. U.S. lawmakers await a progress report on the mission to regain control of Baghdad and central Iraq after 30,000 additional U.S. troops were deployed in the first half of the year to regain control of Baghdad and central Iraq.
Al-Maliki was in Iran earlier this month and invited Mahmoud Amadinejad to pay a return visit. The Iraqi leader now seeks better links in Damascus, where he was to meet President Bashar Assad on Tuesday.
There were reports Assad was prepared to offer a security pact that could tighten the Syrian border against foreign fighters who have crossed into Iraq since the summer of 2003.
"We will discuss the serious security file and its challenges, which concern not only Iraq but the whole region. We will discuss the Iraqi community and immigrants in Syria and the ways to provide them with services," al-Maliki told reporters in Damascus.
Bernard Kouchner, the charismatic French foreign minister, sat down with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani and other Iraqi officials Monday, the second day of a visit whose symbolism could boost White House efforts to prolong the American mission in Iraq.
Kouchner's unannounced appearance in Baghdad on Sunday was the first by a senior French official since the U.S. invasion in March 2003 and French opposition to it badly damaged Franco-American ties.
"It is true that in the past, we did not agree with certain countries about the events in 2003, but all that has been put behind us now," he said in French at a joint news conference with Talabani. "Today, we have to look toward the future."
Kouchner said the U.N. should take a key role in brokering a political solution among Iraq's squabbling factions. "We must not become accustomed to violence in Iraq."
A political accord in Iraq could entice the French to take a role, he said.
"We, then, would be ready to participate here beside the Iraqis. We hope this solution comes through the U.N. participation."
Talabani promised Kouchner a "complete picture" of today's Iraq and called the visit a "historic chance" to solidify relations.
Monday's roadside bomb assassination killed Gov. Mohammed Ali al-Hassani as he drove to his office in the provincial capital of Samawah, about 370 kilometers (230 miles) southeast of Baghdad. Al-Hassani, his driver and a guard were killed. His office manager and two other guards were seriously wounded, police said.
Authorities clamped a curfew on Samawah. New checkpoints were erected.
On Aug. 11, a roadside bombing killed the governor and police chief Qadasiyah, another southern province. Gov. Khalil Jalil Hamza and Maj. Gen. Khalid Hassan were returning to the provincial capital of Diwaniyah from a funeral for a tribal sheik.
Both governors were members of powerhouse the Shiite political organization the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council lead by Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim. His loyalists, who dominate the police in the south of Iraq, have been fighting Mahdi Army militiamen for dominance in the oil-rich south as British-led forces gradually withdraw.
Al-Hassani, 52, was from a prominent clan in the area and had been governor for about two years despite several attempts by rivals in the provincial council to sack him.
SIIC dominates the Muthanna provincial council, holding half of the 40 seats. The others are divided among other Shiite parties, including Fadhila and the Dawa party of al-Maliki.
Police blamed the Mahdi Army for the attack. Its fighters, nominally loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, haven been involved in several recent clashes with Shiite rivals.
"There was nothing against the governor inside the province except the confrontations between Mahdi Army and SIIC, which have claimed the lives of dozens of people," a police officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he feared retribution.
At least five provincial governors have been killed in Iraq, with three of that number assassinated in the 2004-05 period by Sunni insurgents.
In violence, a car packed with explosives blew up in an intersection in Sadr City, the Shiite enclave in eastern Baghdad. Four people died and 15 were wounded, police said.
The bombing hit after thousands rallied in the district demanding the withdrawal of American forces in Iraq and an end to U.S.-Iraqi military raids. The Shiite slum is a Mahdi Army stronghold.
Earlier in the day, a bomb planted on a motorcycle struck a busy market district elsewhere in the capital, killing three and wounding 11, according to police. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the information.