HILLA, Iraq (AFP) -A suicide car bomber posing as a contractor looking for workers has blown himself up among a crowd of labourers in a mainly Shiite city in Iraq, killing at least 22 people.
In another attack on labourers Sunday, gunmen killed eight farm workers travelling in a minibus near a restive city northeast of Baghdad, police said.
The latest attacks came as Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mullem was due in Baghdad for talks with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on his first visit to the violence-wracked country since the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The US military has regularly accused Syria of failing to stop crossing of foreign fighters from crossing the border into Iraq to fuel the raging insurgency that has killed thousands.
A suicide bomber exploded his car in the Bab al-Hussein area in the centre of the city of Hilla, south of Baghdad, killing 22 labourers and wounding another 44, police and medics said.
Witness Haider Ali, 25, said the bomber posed as a contractor looking for daily labourers.
“He came to the area asking for labourers and as these dozens of workers gathered around his car, he blew himself up,” Ali told AFP.
“Why are they attacking poor people? What do they get by killing poor people. This is the work of takfiris (extremists),” said another witness, Qaiz Mohammed.
The mainly Shiite city of Hilla, 120 kilometres (75 miles) south of Baghdad, is a relatively peaceful area in the violent central and western regions of Iraq.
The last major attack there was on August 30 when a bomb hidden on a parked bicycle was set off at an army recruitment centre, killing 12 army hopefuls.
A group of farm labourers also came under attack from armed men near the village of Sadiya al-Jabal, east of the flashpoint city of Baquba. Eight were killed and two others wounded when gunmen sprayed their minibus with bullets, police said.
Iraq’s Shiite districts are regular targets of Sunni insurgents in the wave of tit-for-tat sectarian killing that has left thousands dead across the violence-wracked country.
US and British authorities have often charged that Sunni insurgent groups have been receiving aid from Syria to support the insurgency in Iraq. The US military says Syrians make up the second largest group of foreign fighters entering Iraq after Egyptians.
Lawmaker Mahmud Othman said Muallem will hold talks with Maliki and other senior officials.
Shiite MP Bassem Sharif told AFP that “security and border related issues will be negotiated during the visit.”
“Many accusations have been levied against Syria of aiding terrorists and giving them protection in Syria. There is an intention to hold talks and a summit between Iraq, Syria and Iran” to discuss these issues, he said.
Earlier this month Muallem said Damascus was ready to engage in a “dialogue” with the United States in a bid to achieve stability in Iraq and the region.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair has recently been urging US President George W. Bush to involve Iraq’s neighbours Syria and Iran in efforts to stabilize the country.
Meanwhile, security forces continued their hunt for the four US citizens and an Austrian kidnapped on Thursday from the town of Safwan near the Kuwaiti border as they escorted a vehicle convoy.
A top Iraqi police officer said Saturday that they were getting closer to finding the hostages.
“We have identified the area where they are held. I can’t disclose the place,” Mohammed Ali al-Mussawi, chief of operations at police headquarters in the southern city of Basra, told AFP.
Militiamen disguised as police officers seized the five Westerners as they guarded the convoy of trucks from Kuwait that was stopped at what appeared to be a police checkpoint near Safwan.
Confusion has surrounded the case, with Mussawi on Saturday denying earlier statements by a Basra official that one of the hostages was killed and two others rescued.
Elsewhere seven Iraqis were killed in other rebel attacks.
British Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister) Gordon Brown, meanwhile, returned to London after his first visit to Iraq on Saturday where he unveiled a 100 million pound (about 190 million dollar) aid package for reconstruction projects.