Iraqi leader opens door to regional conference
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraq's prime minister reversed course Tuesday and said his envoys will talk with Iraq's neighbors about the possibility of a regional conference on quelling the violence here, despite opposition to the plan by some key political allies. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki made the announcement as more than 100 people were killed or found dead in and around Baghdad, underscoring the urgency of finding a solution to the bloodshed. The U.S. military said three more American troops had died Monday -- two as a result of insurgent attacks and one in a traffic accident. Despite a string of ambushes, mortar attacks and bombings Tuesday, the chief U.S. military spokesman told reporters that all of Iraq would be under Baghdad's control by the fall of 2007, with U.S. soldiers and Marines and other coalition forces playing a supporting role.
Al-Maliki, a Shiite, told reporters that his envoys would talk with other governments in the region, most of them Sunni-dominated, about how they might help establish 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," al-Maliki said.
The prime minister's statement fell short of an unconditional call for a conference. Previously, Iraqi leaders have resisted suggestions they include outsiders in efforts to settle their bitter internal divisions.
In recent days, President Jalal Talabani and a leading Shiite politician, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, have rejected U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's proposal for a regional peace conference. Annan said such a gathering could be useful if the parties met outside Iraq.
Al-Maliki, though, said any conference should take place in Iraq. Any proposals to emerge, he added, should conform to "what the national unity government wants."
The Bush administration welcomed the announcement. "It's a good idea for the Iraqis to be involved in working with their neighbors on issues of regional security," said White House spokesman Tony Snow.
At al-Maliki's press conference in Baghdad, the Iraqi leader said a frequently delayed national reconciliation conference would convene this month. He also said he planned to reshuffle his six-month-old Cabinet, to increase its "effectiveness and strength," but offered no further details.
Al-Maliki's hedged endorsement of a regional peace conference came one day before the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, co-chaired by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, is to release recommendations on changing U.S. strategy in Iraq.
The group is expected to suggest that Iraq's neighbors, including longtime U.S. adversaries Iran and Syria, be invited to help in the search for an end to the violence. Al-Maliki did not say whether his envoys would visit those countries.
Al-Maliki was careful not to commit himself unequivocally to a regional conference, perhaps due to opposition to the proposal among his allies.
But the prime minister may feel he cannot reject such a call outright. Instead, his conditions appeared aimed at limiting the scope of the conference, raising the possibility it may not take place soon.
Arab countries like Egypt generally favor such a conference, in part because they increasingly fear the rise of Shiite power in Iraq and the possible growing influence of predominantly Shiite Iran.
But Iraq's Shiites, who dominate the government, fear Sunni-dominated countries will pressure Baghdad to make concessions to Iraq's Sunni Arab minority, which launched the insurgency against the U.S.-led coalition three years ago.
At any regional peace conference, both Iran and Syria would most likely try to increase their influence in Iraq.
The U.S. maintains about 140,000 troops in Iraq and is considering changing its strategic course in the country.
Robert Gates, the White House choice to be the next defense secretary, conceded during his Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday that the United States is not winning the war in Iraq. If the country is not stabilized in the next year or two, he warned, it could lead to a "regional conflagration."
He later said he believes the U.S. is neither winning nor losing, "at this point."
U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell told reporters that efforts to transfer security responsibility to the Iraqi military were moving forward. He predicted the entire country would be under the control of Iraqi police and military by the fall of next year.
"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."
The planned transfer of authority, he said, was part of an accelerated timetable discussed by President Bush and al-Maliki last week in Jordan.
Meanwhile, violence persisted unabated.
Suspected Sunni extremists killed 15 Shiite government workers in an attack on their minibus in Baghdad, the government said. Gunmen halted the vehicle and executed several passengers, who were on their way to work at the Shiite Endowment, a government ministry that acts as caretaker for Shiite mosques.
Fifteen other people were killed near a gasoline station when two car bombs exploded in the capital, police said. And at least 15 died in shootings, bombings and a mortar attack in and around Baghdad. Four bodies were pulled from the Tigris River south of the capital.
Police discovered the tortured bodies of 60 people who had been bound, blindfolded, then shot and left in Baghdad over the past 24 hours, Lt. Mohammed Khayoun said.
An American soldier was killed Monday when attackers fired on a U.S. patrol in northeastern Baghdad, the U.S. command said. Also Monday, a soldier died of wounds suffered in a blast in Diyala province and another soldier died in a traffic accident.
The deaths raised to at least 2,905 the number of members of the U.S. military who have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
AP writers Hamza Hendawi and Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report from Baghdad.