Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said his government will send envoys to neighboring countries to pave the way for a regional conference on ending Iraq’s rampant violence, which on Tuesday killed more than 40 people.
The Shiite leader appeared to back down from previous opposition to handing neighboring nations a say in Iraqi affairs but stressed that he wants the conference to be held in Iraq and while his government would welcome help, it would not tolerate interference.
In new bloodshed, suspected insurgents set off a car bomb to stop a minibus carrying Shiite government employees in Baghdad, then shot and killed 15 of them, the government said. In another attack in the capital on Tuesday, two car bombs exploded in a commercial district, killing 15 other Iraqis, police said.
The U.S. command said an insurgent attack on an American military patrol in Baghdad on Monday killed one soldier and wounded five. Another U.S. serviceman died in southern Iraq on Monday in an accident involving his vehicle.
Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said the military expects all of the country to be under the control of Iraqi forces by mid-2007.
“We would expect to see the entire country having reached provincial Iraqi control by early fall of next year,” Caldwell said. “We should see the complete transfer of command and control of all Iraqi army divisions by late spring, early summer.”
He said this is part of an accelerated timetable discussed by President Bush and al-Maliki last week in Jordan.
The U.S. maintains about 140,000 troops in Iraq and is now considering changing its strategic course in the country, which the U.S.-led coalition invaded in 2003.
Al-Maliki said the government will send envoys to neighboring countries to exchange views and discuss their possible contributions to building security and stability in Iraq.
Snow: No invite yet to U.S.
“After the political climate is cleared, we will call for the convening of a regional conference in which these countries that are keen on the stability and security of Iraq will participate,” the Shiite leader said.
White House spokesman Tony Snow said that “as far as I know, there has been no invitation extended for the United States to participate.”
The statement came a day before the Iraq Study Group, headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, a Democrat from Indiana, is to release recommendations on changing U.S. strategy in Iraq.
Those are expected to include a suggestion to engage Iraq’s neighboring nations, including U.S. adversaries Iran and Syria, in the search for an end to the violence in Iraq.
Annan calls for parley
Other top Iraqi politicians, including President Jalal Talabani and Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, who leads parliament’s largest bloc, have in recent days rejected a suggestion for an international conference by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The outgoing U.N. chief said that such a gathering could be useful if the political parties involved met outside Iraq.
“These delegations I mentioned will go to these (neighboring) governments because we want a regional or international conference on Iraq to be convened, but not on the premise that it finds solutions on its own, but in light of what the national unity government wants,” al-Maliki said.
“We are leaning toward convening this conference in Iraq because that will be a show of support for the Iraqi people,” he said.
Shuffle in Cabinet also planned
Al-Maliki also said a frequently delayed national reconciliation conference designed to rally the country’s various ethnic, religious and political groups around a common strategy for handling Iraq’s problems would be held later this month.
He added that he planned to shortly announce a reshuffle of his six-month-old government “to boost the effectiveness and strength of the national unity government,” but he gave no details.
The latest American deaths came after a weekend in which 13 American service members died in Iraq, including four whose Sea Knight helicopter plunged into a lake in volatile Anbar province, the military said.
The Defense Department identified one of the four as Army Spc. Dustin M. Adkins, 22, of Finger, Tenn., who was assigned to the Group Support Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group, Fort Campbell, Ky.
In northern Baghdad, gunmen set off a car bomb to intercept a minibus carrying employees of the Shiite Endowment, a government agency that cares for Shiite mosques in Iraq, to work, the organization said. The gunmen then opened fire on the workers, killing 15 and wounding seven, said Salah Abdul-Razzaq, an endowment spokesman.
An Interior Ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of security concerns, also said the blast occurred first and was followed by the ambush.
The U.S. military said 14 Iraqis were killed and four were wounded before the explosion, when the bus on which they were riding received small arms fire, then a BMW drove into the area and exploded as the wounded were being taken to a hospital. The car bomb caused no further injuries, according to the military statement. The discrepancy could not immediately be explained.
AP Television News video showed shattered glass and shoes in the middle of the highway, with the burned-out hulk of the car that exploded on the side of the road.
A similar attack occurred last month in southern Iraq against the Sunni Endowment, the government agency that cares for Sunni Arab mosques in Iraq amid sectarian violence and retaliatory killings that have been rising since the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra.
Also Tuesday, two car bombs exploded near one another in western Baghdad, killing 15 people and wounding 25, police said.
The explosions occurred near a gas station in Baiyaa, a commercial area with a mixed Sunni Arab and Shiite population, a policeman said on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media.
A parked car bomb struck a market in a predominantly Shiite neighborhood in southwestern Baghdad, killing two people and wounding seven, police said.
At least 13 other people were killed in shootings and bombings elsewhere, and four bodies were pulled from the Tigris River in Suwaira, about 45 miles south of Baghdad.
On Monday, insurgents attacked a U.S. Army patrol as it was trying to control the movement of insurgents and enforce curfew restrictions in northeastern Baghdad, the military said.
In southern Iraq, a 13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) soldier died Monday when his M-1117 Armored Security Vehicle rolled over north of Camp Adder, 200 miles southwest of Baghdad, the military said.
The deaths raised to at least 2,904 the number of members of the U.S. military who have died since the beginning of the war in 2003, according to an AP count.