- The Washington Times - Friday, March 9, 2007

12:33 p.m.

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s prime minister ventured into Baghdad’s streets and chatted with Iraqis at police checkpoints today to showcase security ahead of an international conference aimed at stabilizing the country with help from its neighbors.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki shook hands with Iraqi soldiers and bent down to kiss children who lined up behind cement barriers in the street in a mostly Shi’ite area of south Baghdad. The prime minister took advantage of the weekly four-hour vehicle ban every Friday for the Muslim holy day when there is little traffic in the streets.

Mr. al-Maliki’s office released no advance details of the outing because of safety concerns, but issued photographs afterward.

“The conference is proof that the situation in Baghdad is getting back to normal and that the political process is strong and stable,” Mr. al-Maliki told reporters at a power station nearby.

That Mr. al-Maliki could venture out at all was due to a modest improvement in security in the capital since the security operation began last month. Car bombings have decreased, despite last Monday’s devastating blast that killed 38 and this week’s rash of assaults against Shi’ite pilgrims that claimed more than 340 lives nationwide.

Security was heightened across Baghdad as international envoys prepared to arrive for tomorrow’s conference, which would be held at Iraq’s Foreign Ministry just outside the heavily fortified Green Zone.

“Additional security measures have been taken to protect the officials participating in the conference and to secure the location of the meeting,” said Brig. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, an Interior Ministry spokesman.

U.S. forces, meanwhile, killed a suspected militant and captured 16 others in raids across Iraq, the military said. Among those detained were a man accused of working in al Qaeda’s media wing and another believed to be responsible for kidnappings, beheadings and suicide attacks.

South of the capital, Shi’ite Muslims began holy rites in Karbala at the start of a holiday that marks the end of a 40-day mourning period after the anniversary of the death of the prophet Muhammad’s grandson.

Millions of pilgrims have traveled to Karbala over the past week, and more than 340 persons died in violence since Monday — most of them Shi’ite pilgrims killed in sectarian attacks along the way.

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