Egypt will hold a high-level international conference next month to discuss ways to stabilize Iraq and prevent the spread of sectarian violence to its neighbors, Iraq’s foreign minister said Saturday.
The meeting will provide a rare opportunity for U.S. officials to sit at the same table with counterparts from Iran and Syria. Tensions with those countries have skyrocketed in the wake of accusations by Washington that they are providing key 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 that “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 she will 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 Baqubah 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.
Fighting in Diwaniya
Sporadic fighting was reported Saturday in Diwaniya, south of Baghdad, where U.S. and Iraqi forces are pursuing followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr after they fled a security crackdown in Baghdad.
U.S. warplanes fired at Shiite militiamen armed with shoulder-fired 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 have been 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, the military said.
During the operation, a coalition vehicle hit a roadside bomb, the military said. Three soldiers were slightly wounded; the military did not specify their nationality. At least two Iraqi soldiers were also reported injured in the fighting.
Coalition and Iraqi forces sealed off neighborhoods believed to be strongholds of Sadr’s Al 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 Saturday. One was killed and four injured when an armor-piercing bomb exploded in an eastern section of the capital Friday, the military said. Another soldier was killed and three wounded in a roadside bombing Friday in west Baghdad, the military said. At least 3,271 U.S. personnel have been killed in Iraq since the start of the war in 2003, according to the website icasualties.org.
The effort to curb the violence is a daunting task. Last month, 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. Iraq had hoped to host the main conference, but other countries balked -- especially when mortar rounds slammed into the street outside during their initial gathering.
Less than two weeks later, an exploding rocket narrowly missed a building in the heavily protected Green Zone where U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was appearing on live television with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, startling the United Nations chief on his first official visit to Iraq.
Zebari acknowledged the dangers facing high-profile ministerial delegations and said the government decided to consider alternative venues.
“If we had insisted on Baghdad, then maybe we would have had fewer delegation representatives, and the meeting would not have been as useful,” he said. “Our aim is to have a successful meeting.”
Egypt, Turkey and Kuwait offered to step in as hosts, he said. After considerable negotiations, it was decided to hold the meeting at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik on May 3-4, he said.
Representatives of 21 countries and organizations, including the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and the Group of 8 industrialized nations, are invited, Zebari said.
‘There is new will’
The first meeting did little to untangle the complicated resentments and suspicions between Iraq’s Shiite-led government and its mostly Sunni Arab neighbors. But Zebari was optimistic that next month’s gathering would be more effective.
“There is new will and a deeper appreciation of the danger of the situation,” he said. “Everyone will be under the spotlight to show how committed they are to the promises they have made.”
The bloodshed shows no signs of easing. Northeast of Baghdad, 28 bodies were found in and around the city of Baqubah. Nine were discovered on a farm in a mostly Sunni area just north of the city, and the rest were caught in the net under Baqubah Bridge, police said. Most had been shot execution-style.
Police in Baghdad recovered 14 more bodies in the 24 hours ending Saturday night, some cuffed and blindfolded. Two more were found in a volatile region south of the capital. The grim toll is considered a measure of sectarian violence.
Times staff writers Said Rifai and Raheem Salman in Baghdad and special correspondent Ruaa Al-Zarary in Mosul contributed to this report, along with special correspondents in Baghdad, Basra and Hillah.