Iraq's PM visits Kurdish north to melt ice

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World,Iraq

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 in Baghdad, 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 border, in the latest sign that the Syrian civil war risks spilling over into Iraq.

Nouri al-Maliki held a Cabinet meeting in Irbil -- the first in the Kurdish regional capital since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein -- as part of an initiative started last year to better understand the needs of the provinces. Al-Maliki and government ministers arrived by military plane, where they were received on a red carpet by the region's president, Massoud Barzani.

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. An exchange of fire in one disputed city in November led both sides to send military reinforcements and heavy weapons into the contested area.

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.

Immediate solutions to pending issues are not expected during al-Maliki's visit, the first since 2010 when Iraqi politicians converged to end a months-long dispute over establishing the government after national elections produced no clear winner.

Iraq's state TV aired part of the meeting as al-Maliki was calling on Iraqis to come together so that they can face what he called "the danger" brought on by regional unrest mainly in neighboring Syria where Sunni-led rebels have been fighting for more than two years to topple Bashar Assad.

Fears are growing that the ongoing fighting in 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 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 and a storm of confusions in many countries in the region based on different reasons," 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.

"That has brought back the ghost of the killing not only to Iraq but to the region and as Iraq is part of the region and part of its fabric general and that we started to be affected by the storm the region is going through," he said.

The risks posed by the Syrian unrest are growing 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 at least seven people and wounding 18 others, officials said.

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.

Those killed Sunday included five soldiers and two civilian bystanders, according to police.

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.

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Associated Press writers Adam Schreck and Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad, and Mohammed Jambaz in Irbil contributed to this report.

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Follow Sinan Salaheddin on Twitter at twitter.com/sinansm.

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