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Irans hard-line president to make landmark visit to Iraq on March 2, Iraqi official says
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    BAGHDAD — Iran’s hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will make a landmark visit to Iraq on March 2, the first-ever trip by an Iranian leader, the Iraqi government said Thursday.
    Ahmadinejad will meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani during his two-day visit, according to an Iraqi government spokesman.
    ‘‘The two countries will discuss bilateral relations and joint projects,’’ spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said.
    The two neighbors fought a ruinous eight-year war in the 1980s that left an estimated 1 million people killed or wounded. But relations have improved since the 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein’s regime.
    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 Saddam’s ouster.
    Ahmadinejad’s trip was announced last month but Iraqi officials only unveiled the date on Thursday.
    Also Thursday, officials said Iran has postponed the next session of expert-level talks on security with U.S. diplomats.
    The U.S.-Iran talks, which had been slated for Friday, would have been the fourth in a series that is designed to deal with Iraqi security. Iraqi officials serve as the go-between in arranging the talks and sit in on the discussions.
    ‘‘We have been informed by the government of Iraq that Iran has again postponed the trilateral talks on security in Iraq,’’ U.S. Embassy spokesman Philip Reeker said. ‘‘We have been saying for weeks that we are ready to sit down for talks. Now it is increasingly clear that Iran is not.’’
    Reeker said the U.S. will be seeking answers at the talks about Iranian efforts to curb support for Shiite extremists. ‘‘We haven’t seen a great deal that’s very encouraging in that regard,’’ he told reporters in Baghdad.
    The United States has accused Iran of training and supplying Shiite militia fighters with weapons and explosives in Iraq. Iran denies the accusations.
    Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the outgoing second-in-command in Iraq, said he believes Iran is still supporting the militias in a bid to destabilize the country, although he conceded that support ‘‘may have slowed a little.’’
    ‘‘I think Iran wants a weak Iraq and it’s in their best interest,’’ he told reporters on the sidelines of a ceremony at which he handed over the charge of the U.S. military’s day-to-day activities in Iraq to Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin. ‘‘We’ve gotta make sure that they aren’t here trying to create a weak government of Iraq.’’
    U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker told The Associated Press earlier this month that he was open to renewing the three-way dialogue with Iranian and Iraqi officials, and that he expected the latest round would begin with a lower-level meeting of security officials.
    A meeting last May 28 between Crocker and his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Kazemi Qomi, broke a 27-year diplomatic freeze between the two countries. The two met again late last summer and there has been one other meeting at the expert level.
    On Thursday, a parked car bomb tore through a bustling market in Baghdad’s main Shiite district of Sadr City. At least four people were killed and 28 wounded in the blast, according to police and hospital officials.
    The explosion occurred just before 1 p.m. as the Mraidi market was packed with shoppers preparing for the Islamic day of rest in Sadr City, a Shiite militia stronghold.
    The explosives-laden car was parked outside the concrete security wall surrounding the market and damaged two minibuses as well, according to a local police officer who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to release the information.
    Hassan Rasheed, a 45-year-old shopper at the market, was wounded in his legs and his chest.
    ‘‘I was inside the market but the blast suddenly knocked me over,’’ he said.
    A hospital official, who also declined to be identified due to security concerns, said a 6-year-old boy Wessam Abdul-Karim had been hospitalized with wounds to his head and legs and hospital officials had not been able to locate his family.
    Overnight in Saddam Hussein’s northern Iraq birthplace of Ouja, nine members of the same family were slain, including at least one elementary school-age boy, police said. An uncle of the victims said that gunmen burst into the family’s house while they were sleeping and killed them.
    One police officer said that an inheritance dispute sparked the slayings, but another officer who was at the scene said the motive wasn’t clear. The victims were a husband and wife and their seven sons, he said. Both officers spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to media.
    Separately, the police chief in the southern city of Basra, Maj. Gen. Abdul-Jalil Khalaf, announced Thursday the release of 72 suspects who were arrested as a result of raids against members of a messianic Shiite cult last month. Khalaf added nearly 200 others who were suspected to have links to this group remained in custody.
    Associated Press Writer Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Bradley Brooks contributed to this report.

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