The British embassy announced that Straw arrived in Iraq on Tuesday "to talk about bilateral relations, the political and electoral process and what more Britain can do to help Iraq".

Travelling from Amman, Straw met Britain's ambassador to Iraq, Edward Chaplin, in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk as well as members of the provincial council before flying further north to the resort of Lake Dokhan in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Bigley drama

There, Straw met Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) - one of the two main political parties in the Kurdish north.

A British embassy spokeswoman said that for security reasons she was unable to reveal further details about the trip.

But she added it had nothing to do with an ongoing drama surrounding Kenneth Bigley, a British engineer held captive in Iraq and threatened with beheading by an Iraqi group.

"The visit had been planned" for a while, she said.

This is the foreign secretary's third trip to Iraq since the 2003 invasion, but his first since power was officially handed over from the occupation Coalition Provisional Authority to interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's government in June.

As Straw was in Iraq three members of the Kurdish Militia belonging to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party were killed and two others injured in Jalawla area, north east of the mainly Sunni city of Baquba city assailants opened fire on them.

Iraq's disempowered Sunni Arabs fear that a resurgent Kurdish minority is collaborating with US-led forces and planning to carve an independent state for itself in the north.