"In gratitude to the efforts, sacrifices and heroic positions of our brothers and brave sons from the Badr Organisation
... we must give them the priority in bearing administrative and government responsibilities especially in the security field," Abdul Aziz al-Hakim told a conference held in Baghdad on Wednesday to honour Badr.

Abdul Aziz al-Hakim leads the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a key member of the Shia-dominated government of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari.

Badr Organisation replaced the Badr Brigade, which was formed by the former boss of SCIRI and al-Hakim's brother Mohammed Baqer al-Hakim in the 1980s to fight Saddam Hussein with backing and funding from Iran.

"The forces of evil are trying very hard to sully the reputation of nationalist movements like Badr so that they can achieve goals that do not serve the interests of the Iraqi people," al-Hakim said at the gathering, which was attended by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

SCIRI has made such calls for Badr to be involved in security before.

Liberation heroes

"May those who describe the heroes of Badr and their Kurdish brothers as militia be doomed to failure," Talabani said.

"You and your [Kurdish] brothers are the heroes of liberating Iraq.

Al-Hakim's SCIRI has several
ministers in the ruling coalition

"You, my brothers, march on without paying attention to the enemies' claims because you and the [Kurdish] peshmerga are faithful sons of this country," he added.

Talabani's remarks come amid calls for the disbanding of Iraq's militias, which were mostly formed as part of the struggle by exiled anti-Saddam Hussein opposition leaders prior to the April 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.

The head of Iraq's influential Sunni group, the Association of Muslim Scholars, accused Badr in mid May of killing members of the once-dominant community.

"It is the Badr Brigades which is responsible for these killings. I take responsibility for what I am saying," Harith al-Dhari had said.

Sunnis' demand

In Wednesday's other developments, leaders of Iraq's Sunni Arabs set terms for their involvement in drafting a constitution, indicating they wanted about a third of the seats on the body that is supposed to propose a new text by August.

"May those who describe the heroes of Badr and their Kurdish brothers
as militia be doomed
to failure.
You and
your [Kurdish] brothers are the heroes of liberating Iraq"

Jalal Talabani,
Iraqi President

An alliance grouping most of the main Sunni Arab groups, representing the 20% minority that dominated Iraq for much of the past century, resolved at a conference to seek 25 seats on the parliamentary committee drafting a constitution.

Because most Sunnis took no part in the January election, few sit in parliament and so only two are on the committee.

Shias, who now dominate parliament along with the Kurdish minority, say they are keen to draw Sunnis into the process and some officials have said they could expand the number of seats on the committee.

Adding 20-odd Sunni members could take the total size of the body to about 75 or 80.

Fair rights

"The number of our representatives must be 25 so that we have fair rights," the Gathering of the Sunni People said in a resolution approved by delegates to the conference in Baghdad.

Sunni leaders want a third of the
seats on a key parliament body

In the rebel stronghold of Ramadi, however, a group calling itself the General Command for Military Forces in Iraq circulated leaflets threatening prominent Sunni leaders from the Muslim Clerics Association and Iraqi Islamic Party if they
agreed to take part in writing the new constitution.

Sunni Arabs have a potential veto under a rule written in to the UN-sponsored interim constitution that stipulates at least 16 of 18 provinces must support the new text in a referendum.

Iraqi officials have said the constitution will be ready by a 15 August deadline. Under a political timetable drafted under US occupation, once written it must be approved by referendum before an election at the end of the year."If the National Assembly ... stick to their position we suggest suspending our participation."

Deadly attacks

Among attacks across Iraq on Wednesday, rebels ambushed the motorcade of a Kurdish parliamentarian on the constitutional committee, killing two of his bodyguards in Baghdad.

And police said 22 soldiers from Shia southern Iraq were kidnapped in the rebel Sunni heartlands of the western desert.

Rebels killed two bodyguards of a
Kurdish deputy on Wednesday

Security officials said two carloads of armed men fired on a vehicle carrying Industry Ministry officials Zaki Jawad and Muhammed Haider, killing both.

An Iraqi translator working for the US military was slain north of the capital. Fighters Mustafa Ashraf as he was driving between the towns of Khalis and Baquba, 60km northeast of Baghdad.

Also in Baquba, a car bomb exploded at 10.15am (0615 GMT) near a petrol station where cars were waiting for fuel, killing two civilians and destroying five vehicles.

Three US soldiers were killed in two attacks in Iraq late on Tuesday.

Mounting toll

The US military said in a statement on Wednesday that a mortar attack on a base at Tikrit killed two soldiers of the 42nd Infantry Division.

A soldier from the 1st Corps Support Command was killed when a roadside bomb blasted his vehicle just north of Baghdad, the statement added.

Many of the highways and roads
remain too dangerous to use

The deaths take to 1679 the number of US troops killed since the March 2003 invasion and to more than 870 people in total, including US military personnel, since Iraq's new government was announced on 28 April.

Meanwhile, Iraqi soldiers backed by US forces continued their military operation in the northern town of Tal Afar in search of what they called terrorists.

An Iraqi journalist in the town told Aljazeera that hundreds of people were arrested in the operation.

False information

Nasir Ali said the arrested were civilians who had no links with any group and denied the existence of foreign fighters in the town as claimed by the US forces.

He added that the arrests were based on false information and were concentrated on certain areas in the town.

On Wednesday a main oil pipeline
in northern Iraq was blown up

In another development, a main oil pipeline in northern Iraq was blown up early on Wednesday.

An official at the Northern Oil company said the line affected was used to export oil to Turkey from Iraq's vast northern oil fields around Kirkuk.

The company official said there had been no exports at the time because of repeated attacks.

"This isn't the first time. They've targeted oil for a long time even when there is no exporting," he said on condition of anonymity.

Iraq says 95% of its national income comes from crude oil exports and says it aims to lessen its dependency on them.