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Iran urges end to Iraq fighting, says helps U.S.

TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran called on Saturday for an end to fighting between Iraqi government forces and Shi’ite Muslim militants to remove any “pretext” for U.S. troops to stay in Iraq.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, himself a Shi’ite, launched a crackdown against the Mehdi Army militia in the southern Iraqi city of Basra this week. Fighting has spread and exposed a deep rift within Iraq’s majority Shi’ites.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran does not regard the recent clashes in Iraq as being in the interest of the people of that country and calls for a speedy end to the clashes,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hossein said.

Speaking to the official IRNA news agency, he called for the “continuation of dialogue to find ways of establishing peace, stability and security”.

He added that by avoiding clashes “the people of Iraq take away any pretext for the continued illegal presence of the occupiers.”

Iran, which is overwhelmingly Shi’ite, has seen its influence inside Iraq grow since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Tehran’s sworn foe, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Iran regularly calls for U.S. troops to quit Iraq.

Washington accuses Tehran of stoking violence by funding, training and equipping Iraqi militants. Iran denies this.

U.S. President George W. Bush sought to bolster Maliki in remarks on Friday and said he wanted to send a “clear message” to Iran that it could not have its way in the Middle East.

Hosseini earlier dismissed those comments.

“Such statements are baseless, repetitive and boring, and a way of shirking the occupying (U.S.) government’s responsibilities,” he said, according to the state broadcaster.

“Every time America faces a serious security problem in Iraq, instead of adopting logical policies to resolve the security problem in that country, it resorts to illogical methods such as levelling accusations against others,” he added.

Iran has stopped tour groups of Iranian pilgrims who usually flock to Iraq to visit Shi’ite holy sites.

The governor of the southwest Iranian city of Khorramshahr, Mohammad Reza Amolazadeh, told IRNA on Saturday the Shalamsheh border crossing, near Basra, had been closed until further notice “due to security problems”.