BAGHDAD, Iraq, (AP) -Syria’s foreign minister called Sunday for a timetable for the withdrawal of American forces to help end Iraq’s sectarian bloodbath, in a groundbreaking diplomatic mission to Iraq that comes amid increasing calls for the U.S. to seek cooperation from Syria and Iran. At least 112 people were killed nationwide, following a week that had already seen hundreds of deaths.
On Monday, a roadside bomb exploded near a convoy carrying Iraq’s minister of state, missing him and slightly wounding two of his bodyguards, the minister said.
Minister of State Mohammed Abbas Auraibi, a member of Iraq’s Shiite majority, said in a telephone interview that the bomb exploded about 9:30 a.m. as his convoy was on a highway in eastern Baghdad.
“I was returning from an official visit to Amarrah when our convoy was attacked,” he said. “Thank God the two guards were only slightly injured.”
Amarrah is a Shiite city in southern Iraq.
Also Monday coalition forces conducted a raid in Sadr City, the stronghold of a Shiite militia suspected of having kidnapped scores of civilians. Iraqi forces searched and damaged a mosque during the operation, but made no arrests, the U.S. military said.
The Iraqi forces, acting with the assistance of U.S. military advisers, also destroyed a vehicle near the mosque that was posing a threat to the ground forces, the coalition said.
Iraqi and U.S. forces suffered no casualties.
In Sadr City, an official at the main office of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said several homes were searched and three Iraqis arrested during the 3 a.m. raid but that no clashes or casualties resulted.
Meanwhile, Walid Moallem, the highest level Syrian official to visit since the 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein, denounced terrorism in Iraq even as Washington mulled its own overture to Damascus for help in ending Iraq’s violence.
Syria and Iraq share a long and porous desert border and both Baghdad and Washington have accused Damascus of not doing enough to stop the flow of foreign Arab fighters.
Moallem spoke at the end of a day that saw suspected Sunni Muslim bombers kill at least 33 Shiites and the kidnapping of a deputy health minister — believed the senior-most government official abducted in Iraq. Many Sunni attackers are believed to have infiltrated from Syria.
A suicide bomber in the predominantly Shiite city of Hillah south of Baghdad lured men to his Kia minivan with promises of a day’s work as laborers, then blew it up, killing at least 22 and wounding 44, police said.
Babil province police Capt. Muthana Khalid said three suspected terrorists, two Egyptians and an Iraqi, were arrested on suspicion of planning the suicide attack with the bomber, a Syrian.
Within hours, a roadside bomb and two car bombs exploded one after another near a bus station in Mashtal, a mostly Shiite area of southeastern Baghdad, killing 11 and wounding 51, police said.
Besides the victims of the bombings in Hillah and Baghdad, at least 23 other people were killed nationwide. In addition, the bodies of 56 murder victims, many of them tortured, were dumped in three Iraqi cities. In Baghdad alone, 45 were found.
Also Sunday, gunmen kidnapped Iraq’s deputy health minister from his home in northern Baghdad, the Iraqi army and police reported. They said the gunmen wore police uniforms and arrived in seven vehicles to abduct Ammar al-Saffar, a Shiite.
Al-Saffar was snatched nearly a week after dozens of suspected Shiite militia gunmen in police uniforms kidnapped scores of people from a Ministry of Higher Education office in Baghdad. That ministry is predominantly Sunni.
In the deep south of Iraq, security forces searching for five private security contractors, four Americans and an Austrian who were kidnapped near the Kuwait border, detained about 200 suspected insurgents, police said Sunday. Police Maj. Gen. 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 to The Associated Press 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.
In one of the most significant diplomatic breakthroughs since the ouster of Saddam, a restoration of contacts between Damascus and Baghdad was seen as a means of convincing Damascus to exert tighter control over its border.
The frontier has been a major crossing point for Sunni Arab fighters who infiltrated to join the insurgency that has been responsible for the deaths of most U.S. soldiers since the American led invasion in 2003.
Fighters for Al-Qaeda in Iraq and allied terror groups, who also have crossed from Syria, have killed hundreds of Americans as well as tens of thousands of Iraqis in bombings, drive-by shootings and mortar attacks.
Syria broke diplomatic ties with Iraq in 1982, accusing Iraq of inciting riots by the banned Muslim Brotherhood in Syria. Damascus also sided with Iran in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. Trade ties were restored in 1997.
In addition to Baghdad and Washington’s complaints about poor border control, the two countries have blasted Syria for supporting the insurgency by allowing Saddam loyalists to take refuge in Damascus to organize financing and arms shipments. Syria denies the charges.
A U.S. blue ribbon panel on Iraq, led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton, will soon release recommendations on how to avoid the collapse of an increasingly violent and chaotic Iraq.
The proposals were expected to include openings to Syria and Iran in a bid to internationalize efforts to clamp the sectarian conflict.
Iran is believed to be financing and arming Shiite militias in Iraq who have engaged insurgents and Sunni civilians in civil-war style conflict in Baghdad and surrounding cities and towns. Many of the Shiite militia fighters were trained by Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard.
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.
Kissinger has also said Iran and Syria need to be drawn into efforts to curb violence.
By luring workers to his bomb in Hillah, the suicide attacker used a technique that has been employed repeatedly in poor Shiite regions throughout Iraq where unemployment is especially high and men often must hire themselves out daily to feed their families.
“The sudden explosion shook the whole area and shattered the windows of a store where I was standing,” said Muhsin Hadi Alwan, 33, one of the wounded jobseekers. “The ground was covered with the remains of people and blood, and survivors ran in all directions.”
“How will I feed the six members of my family when I return home without work and without money?” Alwan asked.
The U.S. military announced that five days of joint operations with Iraqi forces in the region between Tikrit and Kirkuk killed nearly 50 Sunni insurgent fighters and led to the capture of 20. The announcement detailed the discovery of huge arms caches, usable portions of which were turned over to the Iraqi army to equip its soldiers. The military did not say when the operation began or ended or precisely where it took place.
U.S. and Iraqi forces also killed 12 insurgents, detained 11 and freed eight Iraqi hostages during raids in Baqouba and two villages near Kirkuk, 180 miles north of Baghdad, police said. Iraqi forces also killed a local al-Qaeda in Iraq leader and his son in a village 60 miles north of Baghdad.