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A woman cried as she walked with family members past the scene of bomb attacks at a bus station in Baghdad yesterday.
A woman cried as she walked with family members past the scene of bomb attacks at a bus station in Baghdad yesterday. (Mohammed Ameen/ Reuters)

Syria vows help to lessen Iraq strife

Foreign minister makes rare visit to Baghdad

BAGHDAD -- Syria's foreign minister, in a rare visit to Baghdad by a Syrian official, yesterday pledged cooperation in stemming the sectarian violence that threatens Iraq, even as scores of people were killed or found dead across the country.

One of the deadliest attacks occurred in the southern Shi'ite Muslim city of Hilla, where a suicide bomber killed 22 day laborers after luring them to his minivan with the promise of work. An attack near the northern city of Kirkuk killed three children who were lured to a booby-trapped doll.

The Iraqi and US government have accused Syria of contributing to the violence by allowing fighters to cross into Iraq to join the insurgency. Foreign Minister Waleed Muallem's visit, the first by such a high-ranking Syrian official since the US-led invasion in 2003, was seen as a step toward smoothing those relations. But he also called on the Bush administration to set a timetable for withdrawing troops.

"Syria's intentions toward Iraq are good in all times, and on that principle we are looking forward to a good relationship between Iraq and Syria that takes history and common interests into consideration," Muallem said during a news conference with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.

Syria and Iraq have been adversaries since the 1980s, when Syria sided with Iran in its war against Iraq.

"This visit will be the starting point to solve all of our problems," Zebari said.

Those problems were apparent yesterday.

In the southern Baghdad neighborhood of Dora, gunmen shot and killed three members of a family. A roadside bomb and two car bombs exploded one after the other near a bus station in Mashtal, a mostly Shi'ite area of southeastern Baghdad, killing 11.

Gunmen kidnapped a deputy health minister, Ammar al-Saffar, a Shi'ite, from his home in northern Baghdad, one day after a prominent Shi'ite politician was gunned down.

Iraqi army and police said the gunmen wore police uniforms. Last week, dozens of people were kidnapped at the Ministry of Higher Education office, also by men in police uniforms.

Some prominent US officials say that engaging in talks with adversaries such as Syria and Iran is key to curbing the violence.

The Iraq Study Group, cochaired by former secretary of state James Baker and former congressman Lee Hamilton, is expected to recommend such action in its report, set to come out next month.

US officials have resisted talks with Iran because they believe the Islamic Republic has fomented tension in Iraq and are worried about its growing influence in the region.

US officials also say Syria's borders have become an entry point into Iraq for Sunni Arab insurgents. Muallem denied that.

"We are making all efforts to secure the borders, but that does not come from one side only," he said. "America has not been able to stamp out its borders with Mexico, so they started to build a wall between them and that tells us how it is difficult to control the borders."

According to an Iraqi general in Hilla, an Iraqi and two Egyptians arrested in the suicide bombing told officials the bomber was Syrian.

Elsewhere, security forces detained 200 suspected insurgents in southern Iraq in their search for five private security contractors, including four Americans, who were kidnapped near the Kuwait border. Police Major General Ali al-Moussawi said none of the hostages was found.

Family members identified one of the American captives as Jonathon Cote, 23, a native of Getzville, N.Y. He worked as a security guard for Crescent Security Group, his stepmother said. Family members spoke anonymously out of fear for Cote's safety. A second captive was identified late last week as Paul Reuben, 39, a former police officer from a Minneapolis suburb.

Officials announced yesterday that forces killed two suspected terrorists in airstrikes near Baghdad on Saturday and eight in a raid in Ramadi. In Tikrit, nearly 50 insurgents were killed and 20 captured during a five-day mission, officials said. Six Iraqi soldiers and two coalition forces soldiers were killed while clearing roads of improvised explosive devices.

Even as diplomacy gained some traction, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who negotiated an end to the Vietnam War more than 30 years ago, said a conventional victory was no longer an option for Washington.

"If you mean, by 'military victory,' an Iraqi government that can be established and whose writ runs across the whole country, that gets the civil war under control and sectarian violence under control in a time period that the political processes of the democracies will support, I don't believe that is possible," he told the BBC's "Sunday AM" program.

He has also said Iran and Syria need to be drawn into efforts to curb violence.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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