Egypt to host panel on stabilizing Iraq

Meeting could be release valve for tensions between U.S., region

April 08, 2007|By Alexandra Zavis | Alexandra Zavis,Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD -- Egypt will host a high-level international conference in May to discuss ways to stabilize Iraq and prevent the spread of sectarian violence to its neighbors, Iraq's foreign minister said yesterday.

The meeting will provide a rare opportunity for U.S. officials to sit at the same table with counterparts from Iran and Syria. Tensions have skyrocketed in the wake of accusations by Washington that its adversaries are providing support to militants fighting U.S. soldiers in Iraq.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said he hoped the gathering would help thaw relations.

"We expect there will be chances to hold bilateral dialogues," he said at a news briefing here.

But he conceded, "There is some work ahead of us to ensure the participation of all the countries in this meeting and to encourage all to participate constructively."

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has indicated that she would attend and has not ruled out direct talks with her Iranian counterparts.

The announcement about attempts to ease sectarian divisions came on a day when at least 44 bodies were found, including 19 caught in a net stretched under a bridge in Baqouba to collect trash, officials said.

It was not immediately clear how old the corpses were. When temperatures rise in the spring, discarded bodies frequently float to the surface of rivers coursing through some of Iraq's most volatile regions.

Yesterday, sporadic fighting was reported in Diwaniya, south of Baghdad, where U.S. and Iraqi forces were pursuing followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr after they fled a security crackdown in Baghdad.

U.S. warplanes fired at Shiite militiamen armed with rocket-propelled grenades, the military said. Iraqi and coalition forces swept into the city before dawn Friday in a bid to restore control to the government.

At least nine people were killed and 21 injured since Friday, said Hameed Jaati, the provincial health director. The U.S. military confirmed it had killed four gunmen and detained 39 others. Several weapons caches were also found.

During the operation, a coalition vehicle hit a roadside bomb. Three soldiers were wounded; the military did not specify their nationality. At least two Iraqi soldiers were reported injured in the fighting.

Coalition and Iraqi forces sealed off neighborhoods believed to be strongholds of al-Sadr's Mahdi militia, and helicopters buzzed overhead, said residents, who were confined to their homes by a round-the-clock curfew.

The U.S. military also reported the deaths of two U.S. soldiers. One soldier was killed and four injured when an armor-piercing bomb exploded in an eastern section of the capital on Friday. Another soldier was killed and three wounded in a roadside bombing Friday in west Baghdad.

The effort to curb the violence is a daunting task. In March, a preparatory session in Baghdad ended with no agreement on when or where foreign ministers from neighboring countries and elsewhere would meet to try to stem the bloodshed.

Alexandra Zavis writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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