BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Bomb blasts severely damaged a bridge linking a highway from Baghdad with the northern city of Kirkuk yesterday, the police and witnesses said, heightening tensions between Arabs and Kurds and forcing traffic to detour through some of the most dangerous areas of Diyala province.
An American tank firing at insurgents near Fallujah also killed three Iraqi children yesterday, according to a military statement, and an American helicopter was damaged by gunfire north of Baghdad and forced to land.
In Baghdad, a barrage of mortar shells killed at least seven people. Gunmen assassinated the imam of a Sunni mosque in Ghazaliya, a Sunni area of western Baghdad, an Interior Ministry official said. The Iraqi police recovered 26 unidentified bodies from different areas of Baghdad.
The destruction of the Sarha bridge, about 100 miles north of Baghdad and one of the busiest crossings for vehicles moving between the capital and Kirkuk, appeared to be part of an effort by Sunni insurgents to isolate Kirkuk and limit interaction between residents of different areas and sects.
Salah al-Mufaraji, a prominent tribal leader who lives near the Sarha bridge, said groups aligned with al-Qaida in Mesopotamia were responsible for the bombing.
"Gunmen move through the area freely amid the absence of the government and because the security forces can't control the area," he said. "All the people living here have announced allegiance to al-Qaida out of fear and because they can't confront it."
Abbas Hilmi, a taxi driver who travels between Baghdad and Kirkuk, said that damage to the bridge would hurt the already hobbled local economy.
"It's miserable," he said. "We're taxi drivers. We need the roads."
It was the second bridge leading to Kirkuk bombed this week, local leaders said, and it came on a day when a prominent Sunni tribal leader was found dead south of the city after being kidnapped Friday.
The killing and the bridge bombing reflected rising tensions in the oil-rich area between Kurds and Sunni insurgents who oppose Kurdish plans to make the area part of the north's Kurdish-controlled region.
Also north of Baghdad, gunmen killed two people, including a teacher, near a prison north of Baqouba, in Diyala province, the police said. An Iraqi soldier was also killed and four others were wounded by a roadside bomb in Muqdadiya.
Residents said that frustration with the violence committed by Sunni extremists appeared to be rising in the province, but its impact is questionable.
On Friday, in southern Baqouba, a Sunni cleric called for joint Sunni-Shiite prayers. Only four Shiites attended, but according to several witnesses, who declined to be named, the cleric spoke harshly of al-Qaida and called upon all of the area's armed groups to unite against it.
Gunmen standing outside the mosque said they were preparing to fight back and had asked the U.S. military for help.
From the Feb. 14 start of the new security plan for Iraq to the end of May, 43 U.S. service members died in Diyala. Six had been killed in the same period last year, according to an analysis of military counts.
Despite the recent decision by U.S. commanders to funnel additional troops into the area, and initial signs of local resistance, there have been few signs of improvement.
Yesterday, the U.S. military reported that another soldier was killed in a roadside bombing on Wednesday in Baghdad.
The military said the tank assault in Fallujah that killed three children was being investigated. A statement said the tank fired at insurgents trying to set up roadside bombs.