BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq's prime minister on Sunday made a rare visit to the country's self-ruled northern Kurdish region in a bid to melt the ice between the Kurds and the Shiite-led central government, as a suicide attack in Baghdad claimed the lives of seven people.
The visit came as authorities said a border guard was killed and two others were wounded in clashes along the Syrian frontier, the latest sign that the Syrian civil war risks spilling over into Iraq.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's decision to hold a Cabinet meeting in Irbil — the first in the Kurdish regional capital since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein — was part of an initiative started last year to better understand provincial-level needs. Similar meetings have been held in other Iraqi cities.
Kurdish regional President Massoud Barzani leads the Kurds' largely autonomous and increasingly prosperous northern region, which has multiple government ministries, its own security forces and other trappings of an independent state. It remains part of Iraq, however, and relies heavily on a share of the federal budget controlled by Baghdad to meet its budget needs.
Arguments over dueling claims to the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and other disputed territories running along the Kurdish region's border with the rest of Iraq are one of the most serious threats to Iraq's stability.
Relations grew tenser in November, when an exchange of fire in one disputed city led both sides to send military reinforcements and heavy weapons into the contested area.
Sunday's meeting gave both leaders an opportunity to appear statesmanlike. Iraqi state TV showed Al-Maliki and government ministers arriving by military plane and being received on a red carpet by Barzani, who wore traditional Kurdish clothes.
The two leaders later hailed the meeting as an important step, but acknowledged that difficulties in repairing their relationship remain.
"The issue of reaching permanent solutions needs an atmosphere of understanding and mutual trust," al-Maliki said. "I can't tell you that brother Barzani or I have a magic wand, but with our joint desire and cooperation and through mutual trust we can go forward."
The Kurds have signed dozens of oil exploration deals with foreign energy companies over Baghdad's objections, including U.S. oil majors Exxon Mobil Corp. and Chevron Corp., and Total S.A. of France. The central government does not recognize the Kurdish agreements, which offer more generous terms than its own. It believes it should manage the country's oil policy and wants all exports to travel through state-run pipelines.
The Kurds are working on a pipeline to ship oil produced in their region into neighboring Turkey and earlier this year began trucking oil across their northern border, prompting charges of smuggling and threats of lawsuits from Baghdad.
The United Nations envoy, Martin Kobler, welcomed the Irbil meeting, as did the U.S. Embassy, which hailed it as a "sign that Iraqi leaders are committed to strengthening their state under the Iraqi Constitution and isolating the terrorists and criminal groups who seek to sow sectarian strife."
Al-Maliki also urged Iraqis to unite to face the unrest roiling the region.
Fears are growing that the ongoing fighting in neighboring Syria could further destabilize Shiite-led Iraq's already fragile security. Predominantly Sunni rebels in Syria, including the al-Qaida affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front, are fighting to try to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad. His Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shiite Islam and is backed by Shiite powerhouse Iran.
"The region is going through a new strong storm, a sectarian storm, a storm of political challenges," al-Maliki said. "The most dangerous one is the comeback of the extremist organizations like al-Qaida and Jabhat al-Nusra and others who are backed by (hardline clerics') fatwas," he added.
Syria's unrest is increasingly worrying for Baghdad.
Iraq's Interior Ministry spokesman said the deadly frontier clash happened in the western al-Waleed region, which borders Syria, and involved what he believes are members of the Free Syrian Army rebel group. The spokesman, Saad Maan Ibrahim, said Iraqi forces are increasingly coming under attack by armed groups from the Syrian side of the border.
"We are determined and we have the capabilities to repel any attack on our border posts," he said.
The ministry said it foiled two other attempts by gunmen and smugglers to infiltrate Iraq's border with Syria, forcing them to retreat back across the border.
Sadoun al-Shaalan, a member in the provincial council of Sunni-dominated Anbar province, also said clashes along the border are increasingly common between Free Syrian Army fighters and Iraqi police guards.
He blamed the clashes on "the sectarian fighting and tension taking place in Syria and the belief by the Syria opposition that Baghdad is supporting the Assad regime in its struggle with the opposition."
Shortly before al-Maliki landed in Irbil, a car bomber rammed his explosives-laden vehicle into an Iraqi army checkpoint in a Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad, killing five soldiers and two civilians, officials said. Eighteen were reported wounded.
The attack happened in the busy Kazimiyah neighborhood, which last week was the focus of an annual pilgrimage that brought hundreds of thousands of Shiite faithful to a golden-domed shrine where two revered Shiite saints are buried.
Authorities imposed strict security measures throughout the capital to protect pilgrims, and no major attacks occurred during the pilgrimage itself, which peaked midweek. It commemorates the death of one of the saints, Imam Moussa al-Kadhim.
A medical official in a nearby hospital confirmed the casualty figures. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to release information.
Shiites are one of the favorite targets for hardline Sunni insurgents who consider them infidels. Violence has spiked in Iraq in recent weeks, raising fears of a return to widespread sectarian bloodshed.
Associated Press writers Adam Schreck and Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad, and Mohammed Jambaz in Irbil contributed to this report.
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