- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 5, 2006

12:16 p.m.

BAGHDAD — Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said today that his government will send envoys to neighboring countries to pave the way for a regional conference on ending the rampant violence in Iraq.

The Shi’ite leader appeared to back down from previous opposition to handing neighboring nations a say in Iraqi affairs but stressed that the conference would be held in Iraq and that while his government would welcome help, it would not tolerate interference.

“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,” he said.

In new bloodshed, suspected insurgents set off a car bomb to stop a minibus carrying Shi’ite government employees in Baghdad, then shot and killed 15 of them, the government said. In another attack in the capital, two car bombs exploded in a commercial district, killing 15 others, police said.

The U.S. command said an insurgent attack on an American military patrol in Baghdad yesterday killed one soldier and wounded five. Another U.S. serviceman died in southern Iraq yesterday in an accident involving his vehicle.

Mr. al-Maliki’s statement came a day before the Iraq Study Group, headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, Indiana Democrat, 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. It also is expected to recommend gradually changing the mission of U.S. troops from combat to training and supporting Iraqi units, with a goal of withdrawing the Americans by early 2008.

Other Shi’ite politicians, including Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, who leads the largest Shi’ite bloc in Iraq’s parliament, have in recent days rejected a suggestion for an international conference by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The outgoing U.N. chief said such a gathering could be useful if the political parties involved met outside Iraq.

Mr. al-Maliki said the proposed regional conference would be held in Iraq at the invitation of his government and would offer help, rather than solutions, to his government’s ongoing efforts to curb spiraling sectarian violence.

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 announce shortly a reshuffle of his six-month-old government “to boost the effectiveness and strength of the national unity government,” but he gave no details.

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