A massive raid on a house in northern Iraq where insurgent leader Abu Musab Zarqawi was said to be hiding failed to capture or kill him, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said Monday.
"I do not believe that we got him. But his days are numbered," he told reporters. "We're closer to that goal, but unfortunately we didn't get him in Mosul."
Khalilzad did not say why he believed U.S.-led forces were closer to catching Zarqawi, whose group, al Qaeda in Iraq, is behind many of the suicide attacks on civilians and others in Iraq.
Also Monday, three civilians, including a child, were shot dead by American forces outside a base in the northern city of Baqubah. U.S. officials called the killings a mistake, saying a soldier opened fire because he thought their vehicle was driving erratically.
In Sunday's raid in the north, eight suspected insurgents, four Iraqi policemen and two U.S. Special Operations members were killed in what Iraqi officials said was a three-hour, helicopter-backed firefight at a house in Mosul.
Three of the men inside the house blew themselves up with explosives rather than be captured.
U.S. and Iraqi security officials said their forces had received a tip that Zarqawi was meeting with his lieutenants at the house. The fierce resistance by fighters helped heighten suspicions that Zarqawi might have been inside.
U.S. officials gathered remains of the dead to try to determine if he was there, Iraqi officials in Mosul said. Americans ran DNA tests before Khalilzad commented in public.
Zarqawi's allies have pronounced him dead or gravely ill before. Some American officials suspect he might want to raise doubts about whether he is alive in order to throw off the American hunt for him.
In Cairo, Iraqi politicians and opposition figures closed a three-day national reconciliation conference with a statement condemning terrorism and the killing of civilians but calling "resistance" a right of all peoples. Iraq's Shiite-Kurdish ruling coalition refused to allow representatives of Sunni guerrilla groups to attend.
The gathering also called for a timetable for U.S. troops to withdraw, but said any such schedule should depend on the readiness of Iraqi security forces. Iraq's government has used the same language frequently in the past, hoping to appease Sunni-led demands for a U.S. withdrawal while making clear that political leaders do not yet want the fledgling Iraqi forces left on their own.
In Tehran, Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, became the first Iraqi president to visit Iran in more than three decades, stopping on the way back from Cairo to meet with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Iran and Iraq fought an eight-year war in the 1980s.
Ahmadinejad rejected accusations that Iran has interfered in Iraq since a Shiite majority came to power. "Such accusations will definitely not affect the expansion of relations between Iran and Iraq," the Iranian leader told reporters. "A popular, independent and developed Iraq will be the best friend of the Iranian nation," he pledged.
Meanwhile, insurgents in the largely Shiite southern city of Basra killed a Sunni cleric, Khalil Ibrahim, outside his home, police Capt. Mushtaq Talib told the Associated Press. Ibrahim was a member of the Association of Muslim Scholars, a group of influential Sunni clerics that has been sharply critical of the Shiite-led government.
Two sisters were abducted as they left work at a U.S.-Iraqi security force center in the heavily Sunni city of Tikrit. The two were shot more than 30 times each and their bodies dumped on a road, said Samir Jassem Jubury, a doctor.
Staff writer Thomas E. Ricks in Washington and special correspondent Salih Saif Aldin in Tikrit contributed to this report.