Iran has pledged his support for Nuri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, and said US troops must leave his country immediately.

Al-Maliki is on a tour of Iran to strengthen
bilateral relations [AFP]

The Iraqi prime minister on Thursday emphasised the growing strength of bilateral ties during his two-day visit to Iran, despite a renewed warning from George Bush, the US president, over Tehran's alleged role in Iraq.

Al-Maliki was also quoted by Iranian state media as praising Iran's "constructive" role in "fighting terrorism" in Iraq - a statement that Bush moved swiftly to publicly contradict.

"If the signal is that Iran is constructive, I will have to have a heart to heart with my friend the prime minister because I do not believe they are," Bush told a White House news conference.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, told the Iraqi prime minister: "Iran and Iraq both have heavy responsibilities to bring about peace and security in the region.

"The situation in the region today, including Iraq, is very sensitive. Tehran considers the future of the region to be dependent on the victory in Iraq."

Withdrawal

Parviz Davoudi, Iranian vice-president, also warned that security in Iraq depended on an immediate withdrawal of US forces, a move Iraqi officials have said would be premature.

He said: "It is our belief that the exit of the occupying forces would provide security and stability in Iraq.

"Bringing about security and calm in Iraq is dependent on two factors - the exit of the occupiers and their non-inteference in Iraq and also the power of the government of Mr Maliki."

State media said al-Maliki, on his second official visit to Iran, left Tehran to visit the shrine of the Imam Reza in Iran's holy  second city of Mashhad, where he would also meet Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader.

Al-Maliki's talks appeared to confirm the increasingly warm relations that have emerged between Iraq and Iran following the fall of the Sunni-dominated regime of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Iranian media said the two sides had planned to sign security agreements, but few details were released about any concrete results apart from Iranian promises to help provide fuel to Iraq during the winter and with building a refinery.

Tehran and Baghdad are expected to agree on a deal on a pipeline soon to transfer crude oil to refineries in Iran from oilfields in Iraq, whose oil industry has suffered major damage during decades of sanctions and war, Iranian media reports said.

US displeasure

In sharp contrast to al-Maliki's remarks, the White House expressed displeasure on Thursday over Iran's behaviour in post-Saddam Iraq.

Bush said Iranians can do better
than the current government [AFP]

Bush said that US officials have warned Iran in talks in Baghdad to stop shipping sophisticated roadside bombs into Iraq or face the "consequences". Iran vehemently denies any such behaviour.

Bush said the aim of the talks was "to send the message that there will be consequences for people transporting, delivering, EFPs [Explosively Formed Projectiles] - highly sophisticated IEDs [Improvised Explosive Devices] - to kill Americans in Iraq".

Gordon Johndroe, US National Security Council spokesman, said the "price to pay" remark by Bush was directed at Iran.

"The president has said that many times. We've arrested and detained Iranian agents inside Iraq ... that message was for Iran."

Bush cited Iran's support for Lebanon's Shia group Hezbollah; Tehran's suspect nuclear programme; and Ahmadinejad's anti-Israel warnings, which he said Washington "cannot live with".

Bush said: "My message to the Iranian people is, 'You can do better than this current government. You don't have to be isolated. You don't have to be in a position where you can't realise your full economic potential'."

Iraq pilgrimage

Meanwhile, in Iraq, hundreds of thousands of Shias marched to a gold-domed mosque in harsh heat and sun on Thursday in a pilgrimage of devotion to an 8th century saint.

"Long live Muqtada!" some pilgrims shouted as they paraded towards Baghdad's Imam al-Kadhim shrine, referring to Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia leader whose al-Mahdi Army militia is accused by the US of carrying out death-squad attacks.

A few shook their fists at US soldiers standing alongside the procession route, but the march was mostly peaceful.

Seven pilgrims were killed when suspected Sunni fighters in a speeding car opened fire and threw hand grenades at them in the Dabouniya area, southeast of Baghdad, as they headed to the pilgrimage, Kut police said.

Assailants also opened fire on Iraqi soldiers guarding pilgrims in the Yarmouk neighbourhood in western Baghdad. The soldiers returned fire, killing one attacker.

Soldiers killed

A roadside bomb killed two British soldiers and seriously wounded two others on Wednesday when it detonated near a military convoy driving north of southern Iraq's Rumaila oilfields, the British military said.

A US marine was killed in combat on Tuesday in the western province of Anbar, the US military said.

In other news of violence, nine bodies were found around Baghdad in the past 24 hours, police said.

A roadside bomb killed three people and wounded two in the southern Baghdad district of Bayaa, police said.

A suicide car bomb killed seven people and wounded eight near a market in Salih al-Khalaf village in Taji, north of Baghdad, on Tuesday, the US military said.

Another military statement said eight people were killed and 16 wounded.

US forces detained a "high-value insurgent" on Tuesday suspected of involvement in a roadside bombing that killed three US soldiers on Saturday, the US military said.

Source: Agencies