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Iraq calls for regional conference

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Tuesday that Iraq will call for a regional conference on ending the rampant violence in his country as the government appeared to back down from previous opposition to handing neighboring nations a say in Iraqi affairs.

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.

"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 statement came a day before the Iraq Study Group, headed by former U.S. 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.

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 also died in southern Iraq that day in an accident involving his vehicle.

Their deaths came after a weekend during which 13 American service members died in Iraq, including four whose Sea Knight helicopter plunged into a lake in volatile Anbar province on Sunday, the military said.

The U.S. command has not named the four victims of the helicopter emergency landing, but the U.S. Department of Defense identified one of them 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 on Tuesday morning, 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 of them and wounding seven, said Salah Abdul-Razzaq, an Endowment spokesman.

AP Television News footage of the aftermath 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 late last month in southern Iraq against the Sunni Endowment, the government agency that cares for Sunni Arab mosques in Iraq.

On Nov. 30, gunmen fired at a convoy carrying an official from that agency, killing him and three of his bodyguards, police said. The attack, which also wounded two bodyguards, occurred in Basra, the largest city in mostly Shiite southern Iraq, a police spokesman said. Nasir Gatami, the official who died, was the deputy of the Sunni Endowment chapter in Basra. All the victims were Sunnis.

On Nov. 15, suspected Shiite militiamen kidnapped three employees of the Sunni Endowment in Baghdad, the agency said. At the time, Ahmed Abdul Ghafour al-Samaraie, the head of the Sunni Endowment, was quoted by Sunni-operated Baghdad Television as urging Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to work for the men's release.

In another attack in the capital on Tuesday, two car bombs exploded near one another in western Baghdad, killing at least 15 people and wounding 25, police said.

The explosions occurred at about 9:45 a.m. near a gas station in Baiyaa, a commercial area of the capital 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.

On Monday, insurgents attacked a U.S. Army patrol in Baghdad as it was trying to control the movement of insurgents and enforce curfew restrictions in a northeastern neighborhood of the capital, 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, which is 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 Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

President Bush told one of Iraq's leading Shiite politicians, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, in a White House meeting Monday that the United States was not satisfied with progress in Iraq.

"I assured him that the U.S. supports his work and the work of the prime minister to unify the country," Bush said, referring to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. "Part of unifying Iraq is for the elected leaders and society leaders to reject the extremists that are trying to stop the advance of this young democracy."

The president is under pressure to draft a new blueprint for U.S. involvement in Iraq. A bipartisan commission — headed by James A. Baker III, former Republican secretary of state, and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana — is expected to present its recommendations to Bush on Wednesday.

The group is expected to recommend gradually changing the mission of U.S. troops in Iraq from combat to training and supporting Iraqi units, with a goal of withdrawing American combat troops by early 2008.

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