Iraq, Iran to work to secure border against `saboteurs'

Police among at least 15 killed in Iraq


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki of Iran, on the second day of his visit to Iraq, said yesterday that the two countries had agreed to form a joint commission to oversee border issues, and its primary task would be to "block saboteurs" crossing the 700-mile border.

"We plan to form a joint commission between Iran and Iraq to control our borders and block the way to saboteurs whose aim is to destabilize the security of the two countries," Mottaki said in Najaf after talks with Iraq's most powerful Shiite religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani.

Mottaki, who was taking part in the second visit by an official Iranian government delegation since the fall of Saddam Hussein, said improved border controls would be part of a wide effort to build close ties between the countries, including $1 billion in Iranian economic assistance to Shiite and Kurdish areas of Iraq.

The announcement in Najaf was made as U.S. military commanders and diplomats were focusing new attention on what they said was strong evidence that a covert flow of weapons and money from Iran to Shiite militia groups in Iraq had fueled sectarian violence here. Action to tighten security on the weakly patrolled Iran-Iraq border is among the measures U.S. officials have urged on the new Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

The issue is fraught with political complexity in Iraq, where the Maliki government includes Shiite leaders with links to at least two militias. The militias have been accused of participating in sectarian violence that has killed hundreds in Baghdad and other major cities in recent months.

U.S. officials met with al-Maliki last week to brief him on what they contend is a range of clandestine Iranian efforts to gain influence in Iraq, and to urge the new leader to restrain that effort as part of his promise to curb militias.

Al-Maliki's action on this and other security issues has been curbed, at least to some degree, by the jockeying among the ruling parties over the government's top three security posts, which were left unfilled when his government took office a week ago.

A senior U.S. military official in Baghdad said yesterday that he expected the ministers of interior, defense and national security to be named "within two or three days." Similar predictions were made by al-Maliki and U.S. officials last weekend, but candidates brought forward at midweek for two of the posts - a senior Shiite military officer for the interior post, and a Sunni expatriate living in London for the defense ministry - failed to win the approval of all the major groups involved.

The delay in filling posts has been an embarrassing start for a government that came to office under pressure to show it can be more effective than the departing government of the former prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari.

The Jaafari government was widely viewed by Iraqis as a failure, incapable of making any significant improvement to deteriorating public services or of stemming sectarian violence.

A wave of violence across Iraq in the 24 hours leading up to last evening killed at least 15 people, according to police reports. In Baghdad, a bomb in a parked car exploded near a busy police station on yesterday morning, killing four civilians. There were at least four attacks on police patrols, with one officer killed and at least 13 wounded by a roadside bombing and a series of drive-by shootings. On Friday night, a shooting spree broke out when a referee disallowed a goal during a soccer game, leaving two men dead.

In Baqouba, there were at least three attacks on police targets yesterday, including an ambush that killed the city's deputy police chief and four other officers. Two other police officers, one a general, died in separate attacks.

The Associated Press reported that a Marine AH-1 Cobra helicopter crashed in an insurgent stronghold in western Iraq yesterday, and two crew members were missing. Hostile fire was not suspected as the cause.

The helicopter was on a maintenance test flight when it went down, and search-and-rescue efforts were under way, the military said, according to AP.

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