Iraqi Prime Minister Meets With Top Shiite Cleric to Discuss Security

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki discussed security with Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric Saturday, while police found the tortured and blindfolded bodies of 13 Pakistani and Indian pilgrims and their Iraqi driver.

Attacks elsewhere in Iraq left at least nine people dead, while the government announced it had formally taken over the notorious Abu Ghraib prison from coalition authorities.

Al-Maliki met with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad, the cleric's office said. In July, al-Sistani was credited with restraining the Shiite community from widespread retaliation against minority Sunnis following horrific attacks on Shiite civilians.

CountryWatch: Iraq

"If the government does not do its duty in imposing security and order to the people and protecting them, it will give a chance to other powers to do this duty and this a very dangerous matter," al-Sistani's office quoted him as saying.

The meeting came two days after a barrage of coordinated attacks across mainly Shiite eastern Baghdad killed 64 people and wounded 286. Hundreds of Iraqis have been killed in violence this week, despite a massive security operation in the capital involving an extra 12,000 Iraqi and U.S. troops that has targeted some of Baghdad's most problematic neighborhoods.

In Washington on Friday, the Defense Department issued a report to Congress saying sectarian violence is spreading in Iraq, with illegal militias becoming more entrenched, especially in Baghdad neighborhoods where they are seen as providers of security and basic social services.

The Defense Ministry said Friday that security forces would expand the crackdown in a week to 10 days to the eastern parts of the capital, including Shiite militia strongholds.

Authorities, meanwhile, postponed until Sunday a highly anticipated ceremony in which Iraq's Defense Ministry was to assume operational control of the country's armed forces command from the U.S.-led coalition.

Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a U.S. military spokesman, said the reason was "miscommunication" about the timing of the ceremony.

Iraq's Defense Ministry and Joint Headquarters were to assume responsibility for the Iraqi ground forces command, the Iraqi air force and the Iraqi navy, U.S. authorities had said.

Handing over control from the coalition to Iraqi authorities is a key part of any eventual drawdown of U.S. troops in the country.

In the latest violence, police said Saturday that a group of pilgrims — 11 Pakistanis, including five women, and two Indians — and their Iraqi driver were ambushed and killed on their way to the Shiite holy city of Karbala, 50 miles south of the capital.

The bodies, blindfolded and with hands and feet bound, all bore signs of torture, an official at Karbala morgue said. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said the 14 had been dead for three days and that their bodies had been found on Friday.

Shiite pilgrims are to observe Shaaban, a mid-month religious celebration, on Sept. 9.

Pakistan on Saturday condemned the killings and urged its citizens to postpone travel to Iraq.

Tensions also brewed in the north Saturday, with a leading Sunni politician slamming a decision by Kurdistan president Massoud Barzani ordering the Iraqi national flag to be replaced with the Kurdish one in his northern autonomous region.

The move has troubled Sunni Arabs, who fear Kurds are pushing for secession under the nation's new federal system.

Sunni Arab lawmaker Saleh al-Mutlaq said there was no problem with the Kurds "keeping the land that's within their acknowledged borders," but said that lowering the Iraqi flag "is definitely disturbing for us and any patriotic individual in Iraq."

A spokesman for the Kurdistan government refused to comment. But he defended his government's decision to remove the Iraqi flag.

"We consider that this flag represents the ideology of the Baath Party" of Saddam Hussein, Khalid Saleh told The Associated Press. "And this regime has collapsed."

In Mahaweel, about 35 miles south of the capital, a car bomb exploded near a police station, killing three civilians and wounding 14, police Col. Ahmed Mejwel said.

In Baghdad, a car bomb exploded in the residential neighborhood of Waziriyah as a police patrol passed by, followed by a roadside bombing later at the same site, said police Maj. Ahmed al-Obeidi. Three people were killed. The neighborhood is one of those which were to be included in the expanded security operation.

Police also found the bodies of five women dumped in three locations in central Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad. On Saturday, gunmen opened fire on three policemen at Baqouba bus station, killing all three, police said.