Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met with officials in Iran on Wednesday to seek help in reining in violence in his country, reaching out to a nation the U.S. accuses of fueling Iraq's turmoil by backing Shiite militants.
It was al-Maliki's second visit to Tehran in less than a year, coming days after U.S. and Iranian experts held talks in Baghdad on improving Iraq's security.
Al-Maliki and the Shiite and Kurdish parties that dominate his government are closely linked to predominantly Shiite Iran, and he has struggled to balance those ties with the United States, Tehran's top rival in the region.
The U.S. has recently stepped up its allegations that Iran is arming Shiite militiamen, but the Iraqi government has taken a low-key stance without outright backing the American claims, which Tehran denies. One al-Maliki adviser, Sami al-Askari, said last month that the government "doesn't rule out" Iranian arming of militants.
In Baghdad, meanwhile, U.S. troops and warplanes struck suspected militants in the Shiite district of Sadr City, killing 32 of them and detaining 12 others. The U.S. military said the militants were involved in smuggling weapons from Iran and sending militiamen to Iran for training.
Al-Maliki's visit came as officials from Iraq and its neighbors, including Iran, held a conference in Damascus, Syria, on improving Iraq's security. At the gathering, Iraq's Deputy Foreign Minister Labib Abbawi pressed countries to do more to stop infiltration of fighters and weapons over their borders into Iraq.
Al-Maliki met in Tehran with Iranian Vice President Parviz Davoodi and was to hold talks later with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ali Larijani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, according to the Iranian state news agency IRNA.
"We want to promote economic ties and other ties that contribute to combating terrorism and its challenges," al-Maliki told The Associated Press on the plane to Iran.
He said Iraq and Iran "have a joint understanding that they are keen to solve the problems and sufferings of the Iraqi people. And they are both convinced that their cooperation may lead to helping Iraq and restoring stability."
Al-Maliki said he would also discuss and sign a number of cooperation memorandums with Tehran. He did not elaborate.
In an apparent welcoming gesture, Iran's Payam state radio played Arab-style belly dancing music early Wednesday, a rare event in the country, where state broadcasters shun such music because of the strict Islamic rule.
Before arriving in Iran, al-Maliki traveled to Turkey and agreed to root out a Kurdish rebel group operating from northern Iraq. But he said the Iraqi parliament would have the final say on efforts to halt the guerrillas' cross-border attacks into Turkey. Iran also faces problems with its Kurdish minority near the Iraqi border.
Turkey has threatened to stage an incursion into northern Iraq unless Iraq or the United States cracks down on rebels from the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, that have set up bases there. The envisaged counterterrorism agreement is aimed at forcing Iraq to officially commit itself to fighting the rebels.
Iraq, which like Iran is majority Shiite, has managed a difficult balancing act between Tehran and Washington since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, trying to maintain good relations with its powerful neighbor while not angering the Americans.
The U.S. has accused Iran of providing money and weapons to Shiite militias in Iraq. Iran denies the charges and argues that the presence of U.S. troops is destabilizing the region.
Washington and Tehran have held three rounds of talks on Iraqi security since May, and al-Maliki told AP he would push for these talks to continue at an ambassador level.