BAGHDAD, Iraq – Assassins killed a popular Baghdad television comedian and a popular college professor Monday, but failed in attempts to kill two government officials as the country's leader met with Syria's foreign minister about improving security and reopening diplomatic relations.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met with a top Syrian official in Baghdad and said Syria must not let its disputes with the United States distract from two important regional issues: improving security in Iraq and reopening diplomatic relations with its neighbor.
In all, 21 Iraqis were killed in the country on Monday in a series of attacks in Baghdad, Ramadi and Baqouba, police said. The bodies of 26 Iraqis who had been kidnapped and tortured also were found on the streets of the capital, in Dujail to the north of Baghdad and in the Tigris River in southern Iraq.
The attacks raised Iraq's death toll to at least 1,370 in the first 20 days of this month, well above the 1,216 who died in all of October, which was the deadliest month in Iraq since The Associated Press began tracking the figure in April 2005.
The actual totals are likely considerably higher because many deaths are not reported. Victims in those cases are quickly buried according to Muslim custom and never reach morgues or hospitals to be counted.
Minister of State Mohammed Abbas Auraibi, a member of Iraq's Shiite majority, said a roadside bomb hit his convoy at about 9:30 a.m. Monday as it was driving on a highway in eastern Baghdad, wounding two of his bodyguards.
"I was returning from an official visit to Amarah when our convoy was attacked," he said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "Thank God the two guards were only slightly injured."
Amarah is a mostly Shiite city 320 kilometers (200 miles) southeast of Baghdad.
Hakim al-Zamily, a Shiite deputy health minister, also escaped unhurt when gunmen opened fire on his convoy in downtown Baghdad at noon on Monday, killing two of his guards, the minister said.
The attacks came one day after suspected Sunni Muslim insurgents kidnapped another deputy health minister, Shiite Ammar al-Saffar, from his home in northern Baghdad. Officials said the gunmen wore police uniforms and arrived in seven vehicles to abduct al-Saffar, who was believed to be the senior-most government official kidnapped in Iraq since the war began in March 2003.
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.
The civilian victims of Monday's widespread attacks in Iraq included actor Walid Hassan, a famous comedian on Al-Sharqiyah TV who was shot while driving in western Baghdad. He had performed in a comedy series called "Caricature," which mocked coalition forces, insurgents, militias and Iraq's government.
Assailants also shot to death Fulayeh al-Ghurabi, a Shiite professor at Babil University in the province south of Baghdad, as he was driving home from the school at midday, police said.
A U.S. soldier was killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad on Saturday night and a U.S. Marine died during combat in Anbar province on Sunday, the military said, raising to at least 2,865 the number of U.S. service members who have died since the beginning of the Iraq war. This month in Iraq, 47 American service members have been killed or died.
In Baghdad, al-Maliki met privately with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, the highest level Syrian official to visit Iraq since the ouster of Saddam Hussein.
Afterward, government spokesman Ali Al-Dabagh told reporters the meeting was successful.
"There is a very strong Syrian desire to develop relations between the two countries. Stability and security in Iraq means stability and security in Syria and other countries in the region," Al-Dabagh said.
When Moallem arrived on his groundbreaking diplomatic mission Sunday, he called for a timetable for the withdrawal of American forces to help end Iraq's sectarian bloodbath.
Al-Maliki told Moallem that Syria must realize that what is happening Iraq is a danger to the whole region, not just Iraq, and that Syria must not let its disputes with the United States delay its cooperation with Iraq, the prime minister's office said in a statement.
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. Al-Maliki told Moallem that many of the terrorist attacks in Iraq are being planned in neighboring countries and that must stop, the statement said.
Meanwhile, for the second time in two days coalition forces raided Baghdad's Sadr City Shiite stronghold, headquarters of a militia suspected of having carried out the mass kidnaping at the Ministry of Higher Education. Iraqi and U.S. forces suffered no casualties, no captives were reported found.
British and Iraqi forces also raided homes in southern Iraq on Monday and arrested four suspects in the kidnapping of four American security guards and their Austrian co-worker, an official said.
The raid took place in Zubair, a mostly Sunni-Arab enclave south of Basra, Capt. Tane Dunlop, the British military spokesman, told The Associated Press. Most of Britain's 7,200 soldiers in Iraq are based in the city.
On Sunday, Iraqi police showed the media 200 suspected insurgents they had arrested the night before while raiding several areas north of Basra.
Both raids failed to find any of the hostages in southern Iraq, a mostly Shiite region.