BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – Rebels blasted an Iraqi police station with grenade and mortar fire before dawn on Monday, killing four policemen in Madaen, south of Baghdad, police said.
They said they had detained about 70 suspects in raids in the town after the assault, which occurred a day after at least 22 people were killed and 30 prisoners released in a similar attack on a police post northeast of the capital.
Among the detainees was a Syrian found with leaflets by the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, police said.
The violence again underlined the need for Iraq’s leaders to break a deadlock over a government of national unity, widely seen as the best of hope of stabilising the country and undermining support for a tenacious Sunni Arab insurgency.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Tuesday approved rare talks with Washington on Iraq, where Shi’ite Islamists with links to Tehran lead the interim government.
Some Iraqi officials hope U.S.-Iranian contacts could ease the political logjam, which is due partly to rifts among Shi’ite parties as well as those involving Kurds and Sunni Arabs.
However, statements by U.S. and Iranian leaders before the talks have reflected the mutual hostility and suspicion that have plagued relations since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
“If Iranian officials can express Iran’s opinion about Iraq to Americans and make them understand Iran’s views, talks on this issue are not problematic,” Khamenei, who has the final say in all state matters, said in the northeastern city of Mashhad.
“But if (talks) mean opening up an arena for deceitful Americans to continue their bullying attitude, talks with America on Iraq are banned,” he said in a televised speech.
U.S. President George W. Bush, who is leading international efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, said on Tuesday Washington would tell Tehran in the talks that it would not accept attempts to spread sectarian violence in Iraq.
Tehran denies U.S. charges it is stirring communal bloodshed in Iraq or supplying material for insurgent roadside bombs.
The Iranians are also wary of helping the United States stabilise Iraq without getting a reward. They recall that they joined efforts to promote an Afghan national unity government in 2001, only for Bush to brand Iran part of an “axis of evil”, along with Saddam’s Iraq and North Korea, early the next year.
Iraqi political sources said they expected the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, to meet Iran’s representatives as early as this week.
Three months after a parliamentary election, Iraqi factions remain deadlocked over how a national unity government should function and whether it should be led by interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, nominated by the main Shi’ite alliance.
Bush also said on Tuesday that U.S. troops may be in Iraq after the end of his presidency in three years’ time. U.S. officials have long resisted setting a timetable for withdrawing American forces, now 133,000-strong.
“That will be decided by future presidents and future governments of Iraq,” Bush told a White House news conference when asked when all U.S. forces would finally leave Iraq.
Bush must step down when his term ends in January 2009.
Any U.S. pullout hinges on how well Iraq’s police and army, disbanded by U.S. authorities in 2003 and now being rapidly rebuilt, can cope with the insurgency and sectarian violence.
The attacks on police stations on Tuesday and Wednesday have dealt serious blows to the new security forces, raising more questions about their effectiveness, particularly if Iraq descends into all-out sectarian conflict.
Madaen, a mixed Sunni and Shi’ite town, is in a volatile area where communal tensions run high and insurgent attacks on Iraqi security forces are frequent.