Rival Iraqi parties prepared yesterday for tough negotiations on forming a government of national unity that Washington hopes will end sectarian and ethnic strife tearing the country apart.

As the parties held internal talks a day after the release of election results giving the ruling Shi'ite Islamist Alliance almost a majority, insurgents set off a car bomb in a crowded Baghdad market, killing one person.

The capital was sealed off on Friday by security forces on alert for attacks by Sunni Muslim rebels, who accuse the Shi'ite Alliance of vote-rigging in last month's parliamentary election.

A motorcade carrying members of President Jalal Talabani's staff was attacked on a main road north of Baghdad late on Friday. Police said five people were wounded, including an adviser to the president, when a roadside bomb struck the convoy. Talabani himself was not present.

The Army of Ansar al-Sunna militant group claimed responsibility for the attack, according to an Internet statement.

The Dubai-based Al Arabiya television station reported that a little-known militant group calling itself the Revenge Squadron had kidnapped the son of a senior Iraqi Defence Ministry official and threatened to kill him unless security forces stopped co-operating with the United States.

Leaders of the Iraqi Accordance Front, the main Sunni Arab political bloc, met in Baghdad to discuss lodging an appeal against the poll results, which gave the Alliance 128 seats in the 275-seat parliament.

However, officials at the meeting made it clear the appeal was a formality and Sunni Arab parties would take part in talks to form a government of national unity, which the US hopes will undermine the Sunni insurgency and allow Washington to pull out its troops. Also part of the tactical manoeuvring, Shi'ite politicians said they, too, would appeal against some of the results.

Negotiations on Iraq's first full-term government since the 2003 US invasion are expected to begin in earnest in the next few days, but tough horse-trading means it may take weeks or even months for a government to be formed.

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