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Iran-Iraq talks seek to bolster ties

Cooperation in terror fight vowed

TEHRAN -- Iran promised yesterday to help curb the raging violence in Iraq, saying it has been cracking down on Al Qaeda militants on its soil and agreeing on closer security cooperation with Iraq's visiting Shi'ite prime minister.

Ibrahim al-Jaafari, in the first visit by an Iraqi premier since the 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein, held talks with outgoing President Mohammad Khatami of Iran on solidifying ties between the US-allied government in Baghdad and predominantly Shi'ite Iran, which considers the United States its top enemy.

The interim Iraqi government elected this year is dominated by Shi'ites, including leaders like Jaafari, who have longtime ties to the Iranian theocracy.

Jaafari was to meet today with Mohsen Ahmadinejad, the hard-line president-elect who will be replacing the reformist Khatami early next month. Ahmadinejad is expected to pursue the same line of closer ties with Iraq's government, but may increase the pressure for the withdrawal of American forces from the neighboring country.

''The security and stability of both countries are interrelated," Khatami said in the meeting with Jaafari, according to state-run radio. ''Tehran will do its utmost for the restoration of stability and security" in Iraq.

Jaafari, who is leading a delegation of more than 10 Iraqi Cabinet ministers to Iran, was expected to sign a security agreement with the Persian state, against which Iraq fought a 1980-88 war that killed more than 1 million people.

''Today we need a double and common effort to confront terrorism that may spread in the region and the world," said Jaafari, who also was expected to meet with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during his visit.

On Saturday, Intelligence Minister Ali Yunesi of Iran said ''some 200 Al Qaeda members are in Iranian prisons," according to the state-run Islamic Revolution News Agency.

Most recently, Iranian authorities uncovered Al Qaeda-linked cells planning to assassinate Sunni students at a theological school in Iran ''who were cooperating with Iranian authorities." The members of the cell were arrested last week, he said.

Yunesi did not give further details on how many arrests were made or where.

In the past, Iran caught Al Qaeda militants trying to cross its soil from Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, and later arrested other elements in hiding planning to ''launch terrorist operations from Iran," Yunesi said.

Al Qaeda in Iraq, led by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, has carried out some of the bloodiest attacks during Iraq's insurgency. Biographies of Zarqawi posted on Islamic militant Web forums say he sneaked from Afghanistan into Iraq after the Taliban's fall, crossing Iran with a group of fighters, some of whom were arrested along the way.

Some Sunni Arab leaders, including Jordan's King Abdullah II, have voiced fears about the emergence of a Shi'ite-led Iraqi government with close ties to Iran, suggesting it could lead to the creation of a ''Shi'ite crescent" in the Gulf region that would, in turn, unsettle political and social balances.

Shi'ites represent 60 percent of Iraq's estimated 26 million people, but minority Sunnis were dominant under Hussein's regime and are believed to make up the core of the insurgency that began after his ouster.

Jaafari's trip is the first by a top Iraqi official to Iran in more than a decade. In 1991, Izzat Ibrahim, vice chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council and the second in command, visited Tehran.

Jaafari spent more than two decades in exile before Hussein's fall. One of the top leaders of the Islamic Dawa Party, he fled to Iran in 1980 and remained there until 1990, organizing cross-border attacks while studying Shi'ite theology in the city of Qom.

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