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Iraq has invited neighboring countries, including US rivals Iran and Syria, to a meeting on security next month in Baghdad, the Foreign Ministry said Thursday, while bombings and mortar attacks tore through Shi'ite and Sunni neighborhoods in the capital and to the south, killing at least 45 people.
In the deadliest attack, two suicide bombers blew themselves up in a crowded outdoor market in the Shiite city of Hillah, 95 kilometers south of Baghdad, killing 45 people and wounding at least 150, police said.
The Foreign Ministry official did not give a specific date for the meeting but said it was planned for March and would be the 10th held by Iraq's neighbors but the first in the Iraqi capital. The last such meeting was held in July in Iran.
The government, meanwhile, said it would consider any attack against US forces in this country as an assault against Iraq, but also wants good relations with its big eastern neighbor, Iran, underscoring the delicate balance it faces in keeping the rivalry between the two countries from spilling over its borders.
Spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh's comments came amid rising tensions between the United States and Iran, following the arrest of five Iranians in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil and the January 20 attack to the south in Karbala in which four US soldiers were kidnapped and slain. A fifth was killed in the raid.
Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said there was a "political and moral difference" between what the United States and the Iranians are doing in Iraq, reiterating allegations that Tehran has been supporting Shi'ite militias that have been blamed for much of the recent sectarian violence in Iraq.
"There's been increased evidence over that time that Iran has given this kind of assistance to the Shia insurgency groups in southern Iraq. They've attacked British soldiers near Basra, and they've now begun to mount those operations throughout the country, at least in the Baghdad region as well," he said in an interview with NPR.
Offering the first indication of the war's toll on regular Iraqis this year, a Health Ministry official said 1,990 civilians had been killed in violence in January, a more than threefold increase from the 548 civilians the ministry reported killed in the same month last year. Counts kept by other groups, including the UN, have listed far higher numbers.
The official said 1,936 civilians also had been wounded, according to the figures, which were compiled from daily reports sent by morgues and hospitals nationwide.
Figures provided by the Defense and Interior ministries also showed that 100 Iraqi security forces were killed in January, while 593 insurgents were killed and 1,926 detained.
A Foreign Ministry official, said invitations to a meeting in March have been issued to Jordan, Kuwait, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Syria, as well as Egypt, Bahrain, the Arab League, Organization of Islamic Conference and the United Nations.
Similar meetings have been held in recent years in Turkey, Iran and Egypt but without any significant results. This would be the first to be held in the violence-ridden Iraqi capital, the official said.
The announcement came a day after officials said Iraq has indefinitely halted all flights to and from Syria and closed a border crossing with Iran as the government prepares for a new US-Iraqi security crackdown aimed at crushing violence in the capital and surrounding regions.
Sectarian violence continued Thursday. Attackers strolled into the Maktabat outdoor market in the center of Hillah about 6 p.m. as shoppers were buying food for their evening meals. Police said they stopped one of the men who appeared suspicious and he detonated his explosives. The second attacker who was walking behind him then set off his own explosives belt, police added.
Hillah was the scene of one of the deadliest attacks in the Iraq war, when a suicide car bomber killed 125 people on February 28, 2005.
Earlier Thursday, a parked car bomb exploding at a bus stop near a busy shopping area around Rusafi Square on Rashid Street in central Baghdad, killed six people and wounded 12, police said.
A bomb also ripped the roof off a minibus in the predominantly Shi'ite neighborhood of Karradah, another popular capital shopping area, killing six people and wounding eight, police said, adding that the explosive was left in a bag by a passenger who got off the bus just before it detonated.
The blast sent up a plume of black smoke and devastated the blue-and-white bus, leaving charred seats jutting up from the twisted metal frame.
"We heard a big explosion and we rushed to the street to see the bus on fire and some wounded people jumping from the bus and falling on the ground," witness Jamal Ali said. "They were crying for help and some residents took them to the hospital without waiting for the ambulances. Only the driver was unhurt."
The bombings came hours after mortar rounds slammed into the Sunni neighborhood of Azamiyah for the third day in a row, killing five people and wounding 12, hospital and police officials said.
The mortars struck about a kilometer from the revered Sunni Abu Hanifa mosque.
"What have we done to be attacked like this almost every day?" asked Saad Abdul-Karim, 50, whose son was wounded when their house was hit.
A US soldier also died Thursday of wounds sustained in fighting two days ago in Anbar province, an insurgent stronghold west of Baghdad, the military said.
The developments came a day after it was revealed that Iraq has indefinitely halted all flights to and from Syria and closed a border crossing with Iran as the government prepares for the new US-Iraqi security crackdown aimed at crushing violence in the capital and surrounding regions.
An airport official said flights to and from Syria would be canceled for at least two weeks and that service had been interrupted Tuesday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to reveal the information.
Lawmaker Hassan al-Sunneid, a member of parliament's Defense and Security Committee, said the move "was in preparation for the security plan. The state will decide when the flights will resume."
The actions were seen as a signal to both countries not to interfere in Iraq's affairs as US and Iraqi forces prepare for the security sweep.