In Iran, Maliki discusses deal to boost security

Tehran wary of US presence

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Ned Parker
Los Angeles Times / June 8, 2008

BAGHDAD - Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq was in Tehran yesterday on a mission to improve relations between the countries at a time when US officials have accused Iran of arming Shi'ite militia groups fighting American and Iraqi forces.

The official IRNA news agency said Maliki met with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and Intelligence Minister Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejehi yesterday. He was to see President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad today.

State media said Maliki was seeking to strengthen ties between his country and Iran, and he planned to offer assurances that Iraq would not be used as a base for possible attacks on Iran.

Maliki and the Iranian leaders were expected to discuss a proposed US-Iraq security agreement that Iran fears will keep the American military in neighboring Iraq for years. The Iraqis and Americans hope to complete the deal by midsummer.

The agreement would establish a long-term security relationship between Iraq and the United States. But critics say it will allow the United States to set up military bases across Iraq and allow it to use the country as a launching pad for military attacks in the region.

Maliki is on his third visit to Iran since taking office in May 2006. His trip follows fighting this spring that pitted Iraqi security forces against the Mahdi Army militia loyal to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

US officials have accused Iran of training and arming splinter factions of Sadr's movement, pointing to caches of Iranian-made weapons found since March as proof of Iran's interference.

In Iraq, most Shi'ite political figures have strong ties with Iran dating back to their time in exile after fleeing Saddam Hussein's rule in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The Iraqi government said last month that it was forming an investigative committee to determine whether Iran was training and equipping fighters, based on the American assertions. But Iraqi officials said the prime minister would not present Iran with the committee's findings.

"He will not reach such details like this. The importance is to put the relations between Iran and Iraq on the right path," said Sheik Humam Hamoodi, a senior member of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, a partner in Maliki's ruling coalition.

Government spokesman Ali Dabbagh said the visit was a pragmatic one. "In the end, the Americans are leaving, but we are staying here and the Iranians are here - we have to work as neighbors, we have to build our relations as good neighbors," Dabbagh said.

Sadr declared a freeze on the fighting in Basra in late March after a delegation of Iraqi lawmakers met him in the Iranian holy city of Qom.

Sadr's followers deny that the cleric is in Iran. They insist he remains in Iraq.

Hamoodi warned that tensions between Iran and the United States over Iraq were not likely to ease. "We are stuck in the middle between Iran and America," he said. "We want to preserve the existence of both, and we don't want the whole thing to tumble on our head."

In Iraq yesterday, Maliki's Dawa party said it had expelled Maliki's predecessor, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, for setting up his own National Reform Party. Jaafari's move was seen as a bid to reassert himself as part of a realignment of political forces in Iraq.

Also yesterday, two car bombs exploded in Baghdad, killing at least six Iraqis and wounding about 30 others.

A suicide attacker rammed into a police patrol mid-afternoon in Nisoor Square on the capital's west side, killing a civilian and a police officer, police said.

The other explosion took place across town at a crowded bus stop where passengers were lining up to catch rides to Shi'ite neighborhoods, though police said the target was the convoy of an Iraqi police general. Four people died.

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.

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