In an effort to ease the escalating sectarian tensions, officials from the Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars on Sunday met representatives from the Badr Brigades, the military wing of Iraq's largest Shia party, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

Organised by the anti-US Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the gathering aimed to smother accusations that began earlier this month when the association's leader Harith al-Dhari accused the Badr Brigades of killing Sunnis and executing their clerics.

A number of Shia clerics were also killed.

The Brigades not only denied the charges, they accused the Sunni association of failing to condemn the violence and of trying to "push Iraq into a sectarian conflict".

Hurdles overcome

"We are all Muslims, and usually problems happen between one family. We want to solve them on the basis of Islamic  brotherhood," a Sunni official, Isam Al Rawi, said.

"We overcame many obstacles. The two parties agreed to serve Iraq and to preserve its unity," al-Sadr official Abdul Hadi al Daraji said.

The latest peace bid comes amid 
an upsurge of violence in Iraq

He said another meeting would be held during the week and a national gathering would be called once the crisis between the two organisations was resolved.

The new effort to make peace started following attacks that have killed two US troops and at least 52 Iraqis since Friday.

Those killed included 10 people returning from a religious pilgrimage in Syria whose bodies were left in the border city of Qaim.

This was followed by
 a Sunday car bomb attack near the northern city of Kirkuk which killed two and wounded nine.

On Saturday, a US marine was killed in an explosion near Haditha.

And a British soldier was killed on Sunday in an attack on British forces in southern Iraq, the British Defence Ministry said.

According to Iraqi Captian Karim Asab, a roadside bomb exploded shortly before 10am (0600GMT) as a British military convoy was driving on the main road near Kahla.

Security cordon

In other developments, Iraqi police and army units prepared on Sunday to launch a crackdown in Baghdad that includes cordoning off the city and erecting hundreds of checkpoints, according to defence and security officials.

More than 40,000 Iraqi soldiers and policemen, supported by US troops, will deploy to the new checkpoints and later begin  street-to-street sweeps.

Massoud Barzani (R) is to head
Iraqi Kurdistan for four years

They hope to catch or flush out anti-US fighters responsible for a wave of violence that has left more than 690 people dead since the country's new Shia-led government was announced on 28 April.

Also on Sunday, at least two people were killed and six others injured in an explosion near the Iraqi oil ministry in central Baghdad.

Two civilians were killed and nine others injured when a US military patrol was targeted in al-Tuz, north of Baghdad.

A civilian was killed and two others injured in an explosion in al-Khalis.

The dead body of a handcuffed man was found in a residential neighbourhood in Baghdad.

Two Iraqi policeman were killed on their way to work in the Dura area south of Baghdad.

Kurdish deal

And several explosions were heard in the al-Amiriyah neighbourhood west of Baghdad which were followed by firece clashes between armed fighters and US and Iraqi forces.

Rocket propelled grenades and machineguns were used during the clashes.

It was also announced on Sunday that Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani is to head an autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq after a deal with his longtime rival, Iraq's new President Jalal Talabani.

A Kurdish official said Talabani and Barzani had agreed that the latter should rule Iraq's three northern provinces for the next four years.

The regional parliament will also meet on 4 June for the first time since the January elections, the official added.