Little practical progress is expected from the talks [AFP]
Iranian and US officials have begun rare talks in Baghdad amid heightened tensions between the two countries and ongoing violence in Iraq.

Hours before the talks at least 22 people were killed and dozens wounded by a suicide car bombing in a market across the road from a children’s hospital in the centre of the southern city of Hilla.

The explosion took place at 9am when the market was crowded and people were on their way to work.

According to Eid al-Shammari of the local police "most of the wounded were women and children, and the blast destroyed 15 vehicles and about 20 nearby shops".

Officials from the US and Iran stressed that Tuesday's ambassador-level talks in the capital's fortified Green Zone would concentrate solely on Iraq and not address the issues of four American-Iranians currently being detained in Iran or the five Iranian diplomats in US custody in Iraq.

The meeting was closed to the press, but photos were released by the office of Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, showed the participants sitting at three tables, one for each delegaton.

Al-Maliki was joined by his foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, while the US delegation was headed by Ryan Crocker, the ambassador to Iraq. Iran was represented by Crocker's counterpart Hasan Kazemi Qomi.

'Timid dialogue'

The talks are a follow-up to a meeting in in Baghdad on May 28 that broke a 27-year diplomatic freeze between Tehran and Washington.

However, those talks made little practical headway and according to Hoda Abdel-Hamid, Al Jazeera's Iraq correspondent, a similar result is expected from round two given the recent antagonism between the two countries.

Abdel-Hamid said the talks mark the beginning of a timid dialogue between two countries with vested interests in the future of Iraq.

She said the gesture by the US in taking the Iranian ambassador to visit the five Iranian diplomats being held in Iraq does give hope that future talks may also take place.

Iran has called for the release of the five Iranians, whom the United States has said are the operations chief and members of Iran's elite Quds Force, which is accused of arming and training Iraqi fighters. Iran says they are diplomats who were legally in Iraq.

But Labeed Abawi, an official from the Iraqi foreign ministry, said Baghdad did not want the detentions to dominate the talks "because this will distract from the primary aim and that's helping Iraq".

"We will ask the two nations to help us overcome our problems using all possible means," he told the Asharqiya television station.

'Surge to continue'

Meanwhile a report in the New York Times newspaper on Tuesday suggests that US troops could be in Iraq for at least another two years under a new strategy document of the US military command in the country.

The strategy document calls for restoring security in Baghdad and other local areas by the summer of 2008 and for "sustainable security" to be achieved across Iraq by the summer of 2009, the newspaper said, citing unnamed US officials.

The plan is a continuation of the "surge" strategy set out by George Bush in January when he deployed additional combat troops to Iraq.

The blueprint was reportedly developed by the commander of US troops in Iraq, general David Petraeus, and Ryan Crocker, and has been presented to Robert Gates, the defence secretary.

The strategy, entitled "Joint Campaign Plan", comes as members of the US congress are calling for a timetable to start withdrawing troops and declared Bush's "surge" policy a failure.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies