Iran will join talks on Iraq;

Condi doesn't rule out chat

BAGHDAD - Iran agreed yesterday to join the U.S. and other countries at a conference on Iraq this week, raising hopes the government in Tehran would help stabilize its violent neighbor and stem the flow of guns and bombs over the border.

Iraq's other neighbors as well as Egypt, Bahrain and representatives of the five permanent U.N. Security Council members have agreed to attend the meeting Thursday and Friday in the Egyptian resort of Sharm El-Sheik. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will also attend and did not rule out sideline talks with the Iranians.

Iraqi police reported at least 52 people were killed or found dead yesterday, a relatively low figure in recent weeks.

Britain said one of its soldiers was shot to death yesterday while on patrol in Basra, bringing to 146 the number of British troops killed in Iraq since the 2003 invasion - 12 of them this month.

In Baghdad, U.S. forces fired an artillery barrage in southern Baghdad yesterday morning, apparently directed at Sunni militant neighborhoods along the city's southern rim.

Elsewhere in Iraq, the death toll from a suicide car bomb attack in the Shiite holy city of Karbala rose to 68 as residents dug through the debris of heavily damaged shops.

Angry Afghanis block road

to protest six civilian deaths

KABUL - A raid by American and Afghan troops on a suspected bomb-making compound before dawn yesterday killed six people, including two women, and wounded two children in eastern Afghanistan, Afghan officials said.

Hundreds of angry villagers brought the bodies of victims onto the main Kabul-to-Pakistan highway nearby and demonstrated for more than five hours, chanting "Death to America," Afghan police said.

Col. Ghafoor Khan, spokesman for the police chief in Nangarhar Province, where the raid occurred, said the people who were killed or wounded were all civilians. "Six civilians, including two women, were killed in this incident, and eight others were detained by coalition forces," he said in a telephone interview.

But the U.S. military, while it confirmed the raid and the death toll, said four of the dead were militants, and that a teenage girl and a younger girl were wounded in cross-fire.

Popularity at 3 percent, Olmert awaits report on Lebanon war

JERUSALEM - On the eve of the publication of an official report on the Israeli government's failings during last summer's war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, the main topic of public debate is whether Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will be able to hang onto power.

Support for Olmert has been shaky since the war, which many Israelis consider to have been a failure. Polls show his approval ratings between 2 and 3 percent.

Yesterday, a senior official told the New York Times that Olmert didn't intend to resign. But the official said that could change if the report said Olmert bore "personal responsibility" for failures in the war.

The interim report, prepared by a government-appointed committee headed by Eliyahu Winograd, a retired judge, was to be made public this afternoon. It is widely expected to contain harsh criticism of the decision-making process leading up to the war and the performance of the prime minister; the defense minister, Amir Peretz; and the wartime army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz. Halutz resigned in January, and Peretz has said he will leave the Defense Ministry late next month or soon after.

Also yesterday. . .

Seven Chinese oil workers and two Africans kidnapped last week during a rebel attack on a Chinese oil field in Ethiopia near the Somali border were released yesterday and led to safety by the Red Cross.

The death toll from a suicide bombing that targeted Pakistan's top security official rose to 28. Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao was left spattered in blood but only slightly injured in the attack Saturday in a town near his home village in North West Frontier Province.

At least 700,000 Turks marched in Istanbul yesterday against the possible election of an observant Muslim as president, a conflict pitting Turkey's religiously oriented ruling party against the secular military and civilian establishment. *

- Daily News wire services