Iran signals backing for Iraqi PM in crackdown

TEHRAN Mon Apr 7, 2008 11:12am EDT

Demonstrators chant slogans as they march past Iraqi soldiers in Basra, 550 km (340 miles) south of Baghdad April 4, 2008. REUTERS/Atef Hassan

Demonstrators chant slogans as they march past Iraqi soldiers in Basra, 550 km (340 miles) south of Baghdad April 4, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Atef Hassan

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TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran voiced support on Monday for Iraq's prime minister in a crackdown on a Shi'ite militia but blamed U.S. forces for civilian deaths in the fighting.

The Islamic Republic also said the United States, its old foe, had requested a new round of talks on improving security in Iraq and Tehran was considering it.

Easing a diplomatic freeze lasting almost three decades, Iranian and U.S. officials met three times in Baghdad last year, but a planned fourth meeting has been repeatedly postponed.

"We have received a new request by American officials ... for the holding of negotiations on the Iraqi developments and we are looking into the case," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini told a news conference.

In Baghdad, U.S. embassy spokeswoman Mirembe Nantongo said:

"We understand the Iraqi government is trying to schedule another round of talks, and we are ready to participate."

Shi'ite Iran's influence in Iraq has grown since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 toppled Sunni Arab strongman Saddam Hussein and ushered in a Shi'ite-led government in Baghdad.

The United States accuses Tehran of stoking violence in Iraq by funding, training and equipping Iraqi militants. Iran denies this and blames the presence of U.S. troops for the bloodshed.

Analysts say Tehran and Washington, despite their mutual accusations, may still have a shared interest in a stable Iraq.

SADR IN IRAN?

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered a crackdown last month on militiamen in the southern city of Basra, provoking clashes in Baghdad and the oil-rich Shi'ite south and exposing deep rifts within the country's majority Shi'ite community.

The fighting ebbed a week ago when Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr ordered his Mehdi Army militia off the streets, but picked up again on Sunday with renewed violence in the capital.

Hosseini, whose comments were translated by Iran's state Press TV satellite station, said Maliki's action was aimed at "confronting illegal armed groups" and this was in the interest of Iraq and its neighbors.

There was a difference between those "that have perpetrated crimes and the political groups and factions that are active in the political process of Iraq," he said without giving names.

He was speaking as Maliki raised the stakes by saying Sadr's followers would be barred from elections unless their militia disbands. A Sadr aide said the fiery anti-U.S. cleric would disband the Mehdi Army if religious leaders instructed him to.

U.S. officials say Sadr is currently in Iran but this has not been confirmed by Iranian officials.

An adviser of a leading Iraqi politician has been quoted as saying Tehran helped end last month's fighting in Basra and Hosseini confirmed an Iraqi delegation had been in Iran.

"We called on all the parties involved to practice self-restraint," Hosseini said.

He accused U.S. forces drawn into the clashes of "unilateral measures that led to the massacre of innocent people." Hundreds died and many more were wounded in the fighting.

Washington and Tehran are also embroiled in a stand-off over Iran's disputed nuclear plans, which the West suspects are aimed at making nuclear bombs. Tehran denies the charge.

(Additional reporting by Hossein Jaseb and Parisa Hafezi in Tehran and Noah Barkin in Baghdad; Editing by Richard Williams)

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