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Iranian envoy vows to secure border with Iraq

Move aimed to halt militant infiltrators

BAGHDAD -- Iran's foreign minister made a historic trip to Baghdad yesterday, pledging to secure his country's borders to stop militants from entering Iraq and saying the ''situation would have been much worse" if Tehran were actually supporting the insurgency as the United States has claimed.

Iranian envoy Kamal Kharrazi's trip -- two days after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice paid a surprise visit to support the war-ravaged country's political process -- was the highest-level visit by an official from any of Iraq's six neighboring countries since Saddam Hussein's ouster two years ago.

Kharrazi visited at a time of spiraling violence fueled by foreign extremists and rival groups of Sunnis and Shi'ites. Three Islamic clerics -- a Shi'ite and two Sunnis -- were shot and killed in Baghdad, police said yesterday, a day after Iraq's prime minister vowed to use an ''iron fist" to end sectarian violence.

Shi'ite cleric Sheik Mouwaffaq al-Husseini was killed in a drive-by shooting yesterday by unknown gunmen in Baghdad's western Jihad neighborhood, police Captain Taleb Thamer said.

A senior police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said yesterday that two more Sunni clerics had been shot and their bodies found in Baghdad within a 24-hour period.

The two Sunni clerics, Sheik Hassan al-Naimi and Sheik Talal Nayef, were kidnapped Sunday from different mosques in Baghdad's northern Shaab neighborhood by men wearing Iraqi Army uniforms, according to the police officer and Sheik Hamed al-Khazraji, a spokesman from the Sunni Muslim Association of Muslim Scholars.

Kharrazi, who held talks with Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, President Jalal Talabani, and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari of Iraq on a day of deepening sectarian violence, vowed that his country was committed to supporting Iraq's political and economic reconstruction and would do all it could to improve security conditions.

''We believe securing the borders between the two countries means security to the Islamic Republic of Iran," Kharrazi said.

Zebari said militants have infiltrated from Iran into Iraq ''but we are not saying that they are approved by the Iranian government."

In violence yesterday, US troops backed by helicopters battled scores of insurgents holed up in two houses in Mosul, 225 miles northwest of Baghdad. Mosul police commander Lieutenant General Ahmad Mohammed Khalaf contended 20 militants were killed when US aircraft destroyed the buildings, but the American military said it was unaware of any casualties.

Another 17 Iraqis were killed yesterday: two Iraqi officials in separate Baghdad drive-by shootings, six truck drivers delivering supplies to US forces north of the capital, a former member of Hussein's Ba'ath Party and his three grown sons, three Mosul police officers, and two soldiers in Baghdad.

An American soldier was killed and a second was wounded when a roadside bomb struck their patrol near Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad, the military said. At least 1,621 US military members have died since the Iraq war began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

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