Iraq's political crisis worsened Monday as five more ministers announced a boycott of Cabinet meetings - leaving the embattled prime minister's unity government with no members affiliated with Sunni political factions.
The boycott came on a day on which a suicide bomber killed at least 28 people in the northern city of Tal Afar, including 19 children, some playing hopscotch and marbles in front of their homes.
Officials slapped an immediate curfew on the religiously mixed city after the attack in a crowded Shiite neighborhood. Brig. Gen. Najim Abdullah said a dump truck was filled with explosives and covered with a layer of gravel.
"This is an ugly crime. I cannot understand how the insurgents did not think about these children," said one man, Kahlil Atta, a wedding photographer in the city.
Tal Afar, which was cited by President Bush in March as a success story after major military operations against insurgents, has been the frequent site of Sunni extremist attacks in the past year.
The new cracks in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government appeared even as U.S. military officials sounded cautious notes of progress on security, citing strides against insurgents linked to al-Qaida in Iraq but also new threats from Iranian-backed Shiite militias.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States was working well with the Maliki government, but he did not give the kind of enthusiastic endorsement that President Bush and his aides once did.
"There's a very healthy political debate that is going on in Iraq, and that is good," McCormack said. "It's going to be for them (the Iraqi people) to make the judgments about whether or not that government is performing."
Despite the U.S. accusations of Iranian meddling, the U.S. and Iranian ambassadors met Monday for their third round of talks in just over two months. A U.S. embassy spokesman called the talks between U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and his counterpart, Hassan Kazemi Qomi, "frank and serious."
The detention of four Iranian-Americans in Iran has deepened tensions between Washington and Tehran, whose relations were already strained over Iran's nuclear program and its support for radical militant groups like Lebanon's Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas and by U.S. military maneuvers in the Persian Gulf. Washington has called for their release and says the charges are false.
The first round of Iran-U.S. talks, on May 28 in Baghdad, broke a 27-year diplomatic freeze following the 1979 Islamic Revolution and U.S. Embassy takeover in Tehran.
U.S. troops killed
Four U.S. soldiers died Monday from wounds suffered in a combat explosion in restive Diyala province north of Baghdad, the American military reported. Twelve others had minor injuries and returned to duty. Earlier Monday, the military said one soldier was killed during fighting in eastern Baghdad a day earlier.
Sixty decomposing bodies were found in a mainly Sunni area that had been under the control of al-Qaida in Iraq west of Baqubah, according to a Diyala police official. The U.S. military said it had no information about any discovery. At least 53 other people were killed or found dead elsewhere in Iraq, according to police. Those included the bodies of five soldiers who had been ambushed by gunmen while on their way home for vacation north of Tikrit.