- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 9, 2007

TEHRAN (AP) — Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appealed to Iran yesterday for greater cooperation in easing violence in his country, even as the United States has stepped up accusations that Tehran is arming Iraqi Shi’ite militants.

Mr. al-Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government is closely tied to predominantly Shi’ite Iran and has been reluctant to openly embrace the U.S. claims against Tehran.

Instead, Baghdad has been struggling to strike a balance between the bitter rivals, the two countries with the largest sway over Iraq. The Iraqi prime minister’s visit to Tehran came two days after U.S.-Iran talks in Baghdad on improving Iraq“s security.

Iraqi officials would not say whether Mr. al-Maliki, on his second trip to Tehran in the past year, would directly press Iran on the U.S. accusations during his talks with Iranian leaders.

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the visit aimed to boost agreements making Iran “a positive base” in support of Iraq.

Mr. al-Maliki and Iraqi officials gave few details on what sort of security cooperation they were seeking from Iran during his visit, expected to last three days. The trip also aimed to tighten already growing economic ties between the two countries.

“We want to promote economic ties and other ties that contribute to combating terrorism and its challenges,” Mr. al-Maliki told the Associated Press on the plane to Iran.

Mr. al-Maliki later met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The two leaders walked into an ornate meeting room holding hands, then shook hands for the cameras before beginning their talks. Several other Iraqi and Iranian officials also attended the closed meeting.

Mr. al-Maliki also was to meet later in his trip with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The visit comes at a time when the U.S. military is increasing its accusations that Iran is fueling Iraq’s violence. Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the U.S. second-in-command, said Sunday that Iranian-armed Shi’ite militiamen were behind 73 percent of the attacks that killed and wounded U.S. troops in Baghdad in July, nearly double the figure six months earlier.

Iran has denied arming or financing Shi’ite militias. Mr. al-Maliki’s government has said only that it does not “rule out” Iranian involvement.

In Syria, meanwhile, officials from Iraq and its neighbors, including Iran, held a conference yesterday on improving Iraq“s security. Iraq.s Deputy Foreign Minister Labib Abbawi pressed countries to do more to stop the infiltration of fighters and weapons over their borders into Iraq.

In Iraq, U.S.-led forces swooped into the Shi’ite militia stronghold of Sadr City yesterday, killing 32 suspected militants and detaining 12 in fighting and an air strike targeting smuggling networks from Iran.

Iraqi police and witnesses said nine civilians were killed in the attack, which occurred hours before Mr. al-Maliki arrived in Tehran.

Authorities also clamped a three-day driving ban on the capital and erected new checkpoints as Shi’ite pilgrims began their annual trek toward a mosque in Baghdad to mark the anniversary of the death of one of Shi’ite Islam’s key saints

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