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IRAN PRESIDENT TO MAKE LANDMARK VISIT TO IRAQ

Iran's hard-line president has set March 2 for the start of his landmark visit to Iraq, officials said Thursday, but the Iranians postponed the next session of security talks with the United States.

The announcements came as U.S. officials sharpened their rhetoric against Iran. The No. 2 U.S. military chief in Iraq wrapped up his command with a warning that Tehran wants to keep Iraq's government weak to block any challenges to Iranian influence.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani during his two-day visit, aspokesman said. It will be the first official visit to Iraq by an Iranian leader since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran.

"The two countries will discuss bilateral relations and joint projects," government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said.

Relations between the two nations have improved since the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003. Iran is overwhelmingly Shiite Muslim, and Iraq has a roughly 60 percent Shiite majority that emerged from decades of marginalization to become the country's dominant force after Hussein's ouster.

Sean McCormack of the U.S. State Department said the United States does not oppose Ahmadinejad's trip to Baghdad.

U.S. and Iraqi officials also said Iran has postponed the next session of expert-level talks on security with U.S. diplomats. The talks, which had been scheduled for today, were to be the fourth in a series dealing with Iraqi security. Iraqi officials serve as the go-between in arranging the talks. They also sit in on the discussions.

Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said the Iranians informed the Iraqis on Wednesday that they needed to postpone the talks for technical reasons. He said they were not more specific.

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Six members of an Awakening Council, mostly Sunni Muslims who have turned against the insurgency, were killed Thursday after they mistakenly fired on U.S. soldiers in the north, Iraqi police said. The U.S. forces returned fire, killing them and two women in nearby houses, police said. A police commander said the group had thought the Americans were insurgents.

New York Times

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