- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 5, 2006

BAGHDAD — 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 yesterday took more than 40 lives.

The Shi’ite leader appeared to back down from previous opposition to giving neighboring nations a voice 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 Shi’ite government employees in Baghdad, then fatally shot 15 of them, the government said.

In another attack in the capital, two car bombs exploded in a commercial district, killing 15, 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.

Army 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,” Gen. 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 Mr. al-Maliki last week in Jordan.

The United States maintains about 140,000 troops in Iraq.

Mr. al-Maliki said the government will send envoys to neighboring countries to exchange views and discuss their potential 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 Shi’ite 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.”

Mr. 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 two of the four as Air Force Capt. Kermit Evans, 31, of Hollandale, Miss., and Army Spc. Dustin M. Adkins, 22, of Finger, Tenn.

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