BAGHDAD — Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki traveled Saturday to Iran on a mission to improve relations between the countries at a time when U.S. officials have accused Tehran of arming Shiite Muslim militia groups fighting the Americans and Iraqi security forces.
Maliki, who was expected to meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad today, is on his third visit to Iran since taking office in May 2006. His trip comes after fighting this spring in Baghdad and the southern city of Basra pitted Iraqi security forces against the Mahdi Army militia loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr.
U.S. officials have accused Iran of training and arming splinter factions of Sadr's movement, pointing to large caches of Iranian-made weapons found since March as proof of Tehran's interference. A Mahdi Army commander told The Times this spring that militia factions were getting weapons from Tehran.
In Iraq, most Shiite political figures have strong ties to Iran dating to their time in exile after they fled Saddam Hussein's rule during the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The Iraqi government said last month that it was forming an investigative committee to determine whether Iran was training and equipping fighters, based on the American assertions. But Iraqi officials said the prime minister was not expected to present Iran with the committee's findings.
"He will not reach such details like this. The importance is to put the relations between Iran and Iraq on the right path," said Humam Hamoodi, a senior member of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the largest party in Maliki's ruling coalition.
Government spokesman Ali Dabbagh said the visit was a pragmatic one.
"In the end, the Americans are leaving, but we are staying here and the Iranians are here -- we have to work as neighbors, we have to build our relations as good neighbors," Dabbagh said.
Sadr declared a freeze on the fighting in Basra in late March only after a delegation of Iraqi lawmakers met him in the Iranian holy city of Qom, said Ali Adeeb, a senior member of Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party who was involved in that meeting.
Sadr's followers deny that the cleric, who has not been seen publicly in Iraq in more than a year, is in Iran. They insist that he is in Iraq.
Hamoodi said tensions between Iran and the United States over Iraq were not likely to ease.
"We are stuck in the middle between Iran and America," he said. "We want to preserve the existence of both and we don't want the whole thing to tumble on our head."
In violence Saturday, two car bombs exploded in Baghdad, the capital, killing seven Iraqis and wounding at least 30.
Meanwhile, on a brighter note, Iraq defeated Australia, 1-0, in a qualifying match for soccer's World Cup. Iraqis celebrated by firing guns into the air.
Times staff writers Caesar Ahmed and Saif Rasheed in Baghdad and special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran contributed to this report.