Image: Nouri al-Maliki, Jalal Talabani, Massoud Barzani
Prime Minister Nouri al- Maliki, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Kurdish regional President Massoud Barzani are seen during their meeting at Sulaimaniyah, Iraq, on Sunday.
updated 8/2/2009 6:13:25 PM ET 2009-08-02T22:13:25

Iraq's prime minister headed north Sunday to the self-ruled Kurdish region to defuse rising tensions and address a range of disputes that have poisoned relations and threatened to become a new source of the conflict for the battered country as U.S. forces increasingly disengage.

The meeting came as six died in bombs in Baghdad and western Iraq.

U.S. officials have warned that Arab-Kurdish tensions could jeopardize security gains, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates offered U.S. help to mediate during his visit last month to Iraq in which he traveled to Baghdad and the Kurdish city of Irbil.

Shiite lawmaker Ali al-Adeeb insisted there was no U.S. pressure to hold the meeting but conceded "there is a will and a wish to solve all the problems between the region and the central government before the U.S withdrawal from Iraq."

Agree to establish a committee
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met with recently re-elected regional President Massoud Barzani, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, and other Kurdish officials Sunday at the resort town of Dokan. The leaders agreed to establish a committee to solve the outstanding issues.

"The challenges that face the political process require more meetings and cooperation between all Iraqi people," al-Maliki said Sunday at a press conference with Barzani and Talabani. "I am very optimistic after this meeting."

The prime minister, who faces national parliamentary elections on Jan. 16, said last month in Washington that differences between the Kurds and the rest of Iraq were among the most dangerous problems facing his country and that they must be resolved by constitutional means, not by force.

"We discussed the stalled issues and a delegation from the Kurdistan region will visit Baghdad to solve the problems," Barzani said.

Officials said the meeting was an important goodwill gesture between the two sides, which have been at loggerheads for month.

"It is very important to clear the air and to instill confidence about the situation between Baghdad and the region," Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh, a Kurd, said on the sidelines. "Both sides reaffirmed their commitment within the constitution to solve all the problems."

Relative calm since the 2003 U.S. invasion
The northern, self-ruled Kurdish region has enjoyed relative calm since the 2003 U.S. invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein but rivalries between Kurds and Arabs have fueled attacks in nearby areas.

Also Sunday, one of Saddam Hussein's best-known lieutenants was convicted Sunday of helping to plan the forced displacement of Kurds from northeastern Iraq and sentenced to seven years in jail.

It was the second conviction against Tariq Aziz, the silver-haired former foreign minister and deputy prime minister who argued his boss' case in the halls of the United Nations and other international forums.

Dozens of villages were destroyed, thousands of people displaced and children separated from their families as part of Saddam's campaign against the Kurds in the late 1980s.

"Because you committed the crime of forced displacement against the Kurdish people, the court has decided to sentence you to seven years in prison," Judge Mahmoud Salih said. Aziz did not respond as the sentence was handed down.

The defense has claimed Aziz, a fluent English-speaker and the only Christian in Saddam's mostly Sunni Muslim inner circle, spent most of his time on diplomatic missions outside Iraq and was not involved in atrocities.

"The verdict against Mr. Aziz was a political decision," defense attorney Badee Izzat Aref said.

Meanwhile, in western Iraq, a bomb ripped through an area packed with sidewalk vendors at an outdoor market, killing at least five people and wounding more than 30 in Haditha, according to a police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to release the information.

Haditha, a city on the Euphrates 140 miles (220 kilometers) northwest of Baghdad, is in Anbar province, which has seen a series of bombings recently after a period of relative calm.

Bomb hidden in plastic bag
In Baghdad itself, a bomb hidden in a plastic bag exploded near a local official's office, killing one civilian and wounding three other people in the mainly Sunni district of Azamiyah, according to police.

Both areas are former insurgent strongholds that have seen a sharp decline in attacks after local Sunni tribal leaders joined forces with the Americans to fight al-Qaida in Iraq.

North of Baghdad, Iraqi authorities detained 35 residents from a camp holding an Iranian opposition group — the latest move in a standoff that began Tuesday when a government raid on the camp turned violent.

Officials say seven residents of the camp were killed in a riot that began when Iraqi police tried to establish a station inside its fences. Members of the People's Mujahedeen Organization of Iran claimed that 12 people were killed and scores wounded.

Tensions have been high at the camp since Iraq took over responsibility for its security from U.S. troops early this year.

The Iraqi government has said it wants the exiles to leave the country and the police action last week raised concerns from human rights groups who say it is a step toward repatriating the exiles, who helped Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war and could face punishment or even death if they are sent back to Iran.

Maj. Ghalib al-Karkhi, a spokesman for the Diyala provincial police, said the 35 were detained and moved to Baghdad for questioning because they were involved in last week's bloody melee.

Shahriar Kia, a spokesman for the People's Mujahedeen, said 36 residents had been arrested and alleged the action was part of efforts to deport the exiles to Iran "or to eliminate them."

Iran, which has complicated but close relations to Iraq's Shiite-dominated government, welcomed the raid, but Washington has called for restraint.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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