Twelve people were killed and dozens wounded in car bomb attacks in Iraq on Tuesday ahead of a UN vote on a resolution to give international legitimacy to the new interim government in Baghdad.
But in a positive development for the US-led occupation, three Italians and one Polish national held hostage by insurgents in Iraq were freed.
After days of diplomatic haggling, the United States and Britain secured support from Iraq war opponents, including France, for the UN resolution just three weeks before the occupiers are to hand back sovereignty to Iraqis.
In the latest unrest, 12 people including a US soldier were killed and wounded 68 people in attacks in Iraq's Sunni Muslim heartland, one of the breeding grounds of the country's deadly insurgency. A suicide car bomb and a roadside bomb exploded simultaneously in the northern city of Mosul, killing 10 people and wounding 37, according to hospitals.
An hour earlier, a suicide car bomb exploded as Iraqis queued for work at a US military base in Baquba, northeast of Baghdad, killing one US soldier and one Iraqi and wounding 31 other people, including 10 US troops, military and medical sources said. T
The death brought to 608 the number of US troops killed in action since the US-led coalition invaded Iraq in March 2003, with another US soldier killed west of Baghdad on Monday. At least 86 people have been killed since the caretaker government, headed by pro-US officials, was appointed one week ago ahead of the June 30 power handover.
Meanwhile, three Italian security guards and a Polish contractor kidnapped by insurgents were released in an operation by coalition troops, officials in both countries said. "Regarding the freeing of the hostages in Iraq there were no negotiations and it was an action without bloodshed," Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said.
The three Italians, said to be in good health, had been held since April 12. A fourth was killed by his captors. The Polish hostage was kidnapped with two Iraqis and three Kurdish bodyguards just hours after Iraq's new interim government was unveiled.
But adding to the coalition death toll, six soldiers serving with Polish-led forces -- three Slovakians, two Polish nationals and a Latvian-- were killed in a munitions explosion south of Baghdad that is believed to have been an accident.
In New York, the United States and Britain were headed to a key victory on Iraq with the UN Security Council expected to give unanimous support for the June 30 handover after France said it would vote in favour.
The resolution, expected to be voted on later Tuesday, aims to underpin the delicate balance between Iraqis' control of their country and Washington's traditional refusal to relinquish control of American troops operating abroad.
France had demanded that Iraq be given a virtual veto over US-led military operations. Washinton and London initially snubbed the demand but later amended their draft to pledge that US-led forces would cooperate with the Iraqi government on "sensitive offensive operations."
The subtle change drew a warm welcome from French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier, who said Paris would now throw its weight behind the resolution even though it did not get the Iraqi veto it wanted. "That won't prevent us from a positive vote," Barnier told French radio.
Germany, one of 10 rotating non-veto holding council members, will also vote in favour, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said. The allies hope the resolution, one of the last pieces in the diplomatic puzzle before Iraq wins back its independence, will also counter charges that the new leaders in Baghdad are US-appointed stooges.
Even after the return of sovereignty, the coalition's estimated 160,000 troops, mainly US, will still have the job of maintaining security.
The balance between the Iraqi government -- in a caretaker role until elections can be organised in January 2005 -- and the foreign troops had proved a sticking point in thrashing out the new resolution. Leaders of the coalition, in particular US President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, have warned their largely anti-war public to expect more violence both before and after the handover.
Senior coalition military officials say they believe the insurgency is no longer a matter of loyalty to ousted dictator Saddam Hussein but motivated by sectarian fears. Iraq's new prime minister Iyad Allawi called for a "rational dialogue" with Shiite rebel leader Moqtada Sadr, and asked other Muslim nations to contribute to the multinational force in Iraq once his government takes power.
His comments came after the new government endorsed a coalition ban on militia and which reiterates the US position that Sadr's thousands-strong Mehdi Army militia is illegal.
An uneasy truce between Sadr's forces and US troops is currently holding in the holy city of Najaf, the scene of bitter clashes with coalition troops which has claimed hundreds of lives. Sunni Muslims have also taken up arms, angered by the presence of foreign troops and worried about their future in a country dominated by Iraq's 60 percent Shiite majority.
The imminent UN resolution has also fuelled tensions among Iraq's Shiite majority and Kurds who are feuding over whether the text will acknowledge the Kurdish minority's right to self-rule in northern Iraq. Kurdish leaders Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani issued a joint statement warning that Iraq's interim constitution, or fundamental law, should be mentioned in the new UN resolution.
Iraq's 15-million-strong Shiite majority are up in arms over the fundamental law's guarantee of Kurdish semi-autonomy in the northern provinces of Dahuk, Arbil and Sulaimaniyah. Top Shiite religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani cautioned the UN against any reference to the charter. Any mention of the interim constitution "is illegal and is rejected by a majority of Iraqis", Sistani's office said in a statement as about 2,000 Shiite Arabs marched through the streets of Baghdad.
The Kurds, estimated to make up anywhere from 15 to 20 percent of Iraq's population, are determined to keep their hard-earned privileges, fearing a return to the recent past when Saddam waged war on them, expelled them from their homes and gassed them.