(AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)
BAGHDAD - Egypt sent its foreign minister to Iraq Sunday for the first time in nearly two decades in a sign of growing Arab acceptance of the country's Shiite-led government.
In the north, 11 people including women and children died during a U.S. raid on a house in Mosul, where an extremist detonated a suicide vest — a stark reminder that Iraq still faces security challenges despite the drop in violence.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said his visit was aimed at helping Iraq face its "many challenges," including extremism, violence and sectarian hatred.
"And we hope that peace and security will prevail in Iraq," Aboul Gheit said. He told reporters Egypt was ready to open a new embassy and help with reconstruction of Iraq's oil industry.
It was the first visit to Iraq by an Egyptian foreign minister since 1990, when President Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and his regime was largely shunned by Arab governments.
The United States has been urging the mostly Sunni-run Arab countries to shore up relations with Shiite-led Iraq as a counterweight to the influence of Shiite-dominated Iran. But the Arabs were reluctant during the height of Shiite-Sunni fighting, which receded last year after the U.S. troop buildup.
In recent months, leaders of Jordan and Lebanon have visited Iraq, along with the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, which has sent an ambassador. Regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia has remained on the sidelines, saying it was waiting until security improves.
Aboul Gheit's visit was noteworthy, however, because of Egypt's traditional role as a leading Arab state and host of the Arab League. The Egyptians sent an ambassador to Baghdad in 2005 but he was kidnapped and murdered by al-Qaida in Iraq.
"Egypt has lost a good citizen on Iraqi soil," Aboul-Gheit said. "This has kept us a little bit away on the official level."
U.S. officials are anxious for Iraq to bolster its ties to the Arab world as Washington prepares do draw down its 140,000 troops next year. U.S. and Iraqi officials are negotiating a security deal with the Iraqis say would see the last American troops leave the country by the end of 2011.
Although violence is down more than 80 percent from early 2007 levels, U.S. military commanders warn that security gains are not irreversible because Sunni and Shiite extremists have been battered but not defeated.
Those fears were underscored by the carnage in Mosul, the third-largest city where U.S. and Iraqi forces have been trying to months to drive out al-Qaida in Iraq and other Sunni extremist groups.
American troops came under heavy gunfire after entering a house early Sunday looking for a suspected insurgent, the U.S. military said in a statement.
As U.S. soldiers returned fire, a man inside the house detonated a suicide vest, the statement added.
Five "terrorists" as well as three women and three children were killed, according to the statement. Two other children, including one who was injured, were found near the building and moved to safety, the military said. A weapons cache was later found inside.
No American casualties were reported.
"This is just another tragic example of how al-Qaida in Iraq hides behind innocent Iraqis," U.S. military spokesman Rear Adm. Patrick Driscoll said.
Iraqi police officials in Mosul said all 11 of the dead were family members, including a 7-year-old boy. The police spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information,
Hospital officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not supposed to give information to media, said most of those who died in the Mosul raid appeared to have been killed by the exploding vest and not by gunfire.
Still, some Mosul residents blamed the Americans.
"Most of the Mosul residents live in fear because of such raids conducted by U.S. forces, and even sometimes the Iraqi forces," said Thaier Ahmed, a 32-year-old teacher. "It is a horrible incident that has led to the killing of innocent people, including children."
A 35-year-old government worker, who identified himself only by his nickname Abu Tiba, said the raid raised questions whether "the blood of Iraqis is worth nothing to the U.S. Army."
Later in Mosul, gunmen opened fire on mourners in a funeral tent, killing four people and wounding three, said Iraqi officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not supposed to release the information.
The attack occurred in the city's Zanjili neighborhood where al-Qaida operates. Four Iraqi employees of a television station were kidnapped and killed in the area last month.
Also in Mosul, a secondary school teacher, who was an ethnic Turkomen, was shot to death near his house Sunday, a police officer said. Gunmen also entered a Mosul butcher shop, shot the owner dead and wounded his son, police said.
Associated Press writer Bushra Juhi and Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.