Al-Maliki is to hold talks with Talabani and Massoud Barzani, the recently re-elected Kurdish regional president, at Dokan, a summer resort 75km northwest of Sulaimaniyah.

"This visit is a very positive point and opens dialogue between the two [parties] in order to solve the problems between the central government and Kurdistan," Mahmoud Othman, a senior Kurdish MP, said.

Differences

The Kurds are pushing to expand their semi-autonomous region to include the oil-rich, ethnically-mixed province of Kirkuk and other areas.

But the move has triggered an increasingly heated war of words with the central government.

During campaigning ahead of last weekends' regional elections, Barzani insisted that he would not "compromise" on the Kurds' longstanding claims to Kirkuk.

On a visit to Iraq last week, Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, urged Arab and Kurdish leaders to settle their political differences before US troops leave Iraq under a security agreement between Baghdad and Washington.

The US military is closely monitoring the situation and has set up liaison offices with commanders of Kurdish fighters and Baghdad government forces in a bid to ease tensions, General Ray Odierno, the top US commander in Iraq, said.