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Iraqi PM ventures into Baghdad streets ahead of security conference

BAGHDAD &

Iraq's prime minister ventured into Baghdad's streets and chatted with Iraqis at police checkpoints Friday to showcase security ahead of an international conference aimed at stabilizing the country with help from its neighbors.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki shook hands with Iraqi soldiers and bent down to kiss children who lined up behind cement barriers in the street in a mostly Shiite area of south Baghdad. But the tour &

during a weekly four-hour vehicle ban every Friday for the Muslim holy day &

also pointed out Baghdad's inherent risks.

Al-Maliki's office released no advance details of the outing because of safety concerns, but issued photos afterward.

"The conference is proof that the situation in Baghdad is getting back to normal and that the political process is strong and stable," al-Maliki told reporters at a power station nearby.

Security was heightened across Baghdad as international envoys prepared to arrive for Saturday's conference, which would be held at Iraq's Foreign Ministry just outside the heavily fortified Green Zone.

"Additional security measures have been taken to protect the officials participating in the conference and to secure the location of the meeting," said Brig. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, an Interior Ministry spokesman.

U.S. forces, meanwhile, killed a suspected militant and captured 16 others in raids across Iraq, the military said. Among those detained were a man accused of working in al-Qaida's media wing and another believed to be responsible for kidnappings, beheadings and suicide attacks.

"The terrorist cells are being dismantled and operations will continue until we put an end to this dangerous plight that threatens the unity and the prosperity of the people," al-Maliki said Friday.

South of the capital, Shiite Muslims began holy rites in Karbala at the start of a holiday that marks the end of a 40-day mourning period after the anniversary of the death of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson.

Crowds of pilgrims held their hands in the air and bowed their foreheads to the ground, chanting prayers outside Karbala's Imam Hussein shrine, 50 miles south of Baghdad. Iraqi television channels streamed live video of noontime prayers at the shrine.

Millions of pilgrims have traveled to Karbala over the past week, and more than 340 people died in violence since Monday &

most of them Shiite pilgrims killed in sectarian attacks along the way.

"To the martyrs who were killed during the procession to Karbala...we offer sympathy to their families," Sheik Ahmed al-Safi said in a sermon Friday at the Iman Hussein shrine.

"I demand the government hit with an iron hand...the outlaws and terrorists," he said. "All Iraqis should feel safe under the state's umbrella."

The head of Iraq's largest Shiite political group, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, endorsed Saturday's regional conference in his own address to the faithful in Karbala. But he also warned Sunni Arab governments not to use the conference to pressure the Shiite leadership on behalf of their fellow Sunnis.

"We call on all international and the regional groups that will attend the conference to display a positive spirit and warn against any attempt to neglect the Iraqi national achievements," he said.

Four million pilgrims were attending rites Friday, he said.

Bitter squabbles have broken out between Arab countries and Iraq's government ahead of the conference that the U.S. had hoped would unite them.

Sunni-led Arab governments will likely use the conference to press for a greater Sunni role in Iraq. That has rankled Iraq's Shiite leaders, who were marginalized for decades under Sunni minority rule.

The dispute reflects the complicated tensions that are likely to surface at the meeting, which gathers diplomats from Iraq's Arab neighbors, Iran, the United States, Turkey and the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.

Iran has vowed to support its Shiite allies in the Iraqi government &

but is also concerned the U.S. will renew accusations that Iran is supporting Shiite militants and fueling Iraq's bloodshed.

It was unclear whether the U.S. and Iran would hold direct meetings on the sidelines of the multilateral conference.

David Satterfield, the top State Department adviser on Iraq, said Thursday that the U.S. would not walk away from direct one-on-one talks with Iran or Syria, but the Bush administration apparently does not plan to seek out such contact.

Satterfield spoke to reporters in Washington before leaving for Baghdad, where he would lead the U.S. delegation.

"Iraq needs support not just from us, not just from our coalition partners, but it needs broader support from its neighbors, from the region, from the international community," he said. "We see the neighbors conference ... as a significant step in that process."

Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said he would not necessarily object to meeting with the Iranians.

"But, the first point to make to them is that they need to stop arms, Iranian arms, coming across the border, being used against the coalition forces who are here at the request of the Iraqi government now, and under a U.N. mandate," he told ABC's "Good Morning America."

On Thursday, the new commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, told reporters in Baghdad that military force alone was not enough to end the conflict.

Petraeus said that "any student of history recognizes there is no military solution to a problem like that in Iraq, to the insurgency in Iraq."

Instead, he said political talks must eventually include some militant groups now opposing the U.S.-backed government.

"Military action is necessary to help improve security ... but it is not sufficient," Petraeus said. "A political resolution of various differences...of various senses that people do not have a stake in the successes of Iraq and so forth &

that is crucial. That is what will determine, in the long run, the success of this effort."

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