Iraqi PM makes first visit to Britain for Blair talks

(AFP) - Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was to hold talks with British counterpart Tony Blair, on his first official visit to an ally whose forces are battling insurgents opposed to his government.

The pair were expected to discuss the progress of Maliki's fledgling administration, formed in May. His religiously and ethnically-mixed government is struggling to halt Iraq's slide into sectarian conflict, reports Trend.

The conflict between Israel and the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon and its implications for the wider region was also due to feature in the talks.

Iraqi troops took over control of security from British and Australian forces in the southern province of al-Muthanna on July 13, and Maliki was to set out plans for taking over control in additional provinces by the end of this year, Blair's Downing Street office said.

Maliki was to fly on to Washington to meet US President George W. Bush on his first trip to the United States, which contributes the vast majority of coalition troops in Iraq.

Maliki's office did not say when he would leave London, but he has an appointment with Bush on Tuesday and will address a joint session of the US Congress on Wednesday.

His office said he was accompanied by Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari and Oil Minister Hussein al-Chaharistani and would discuss "the two essential dossiers of security and economic development" in London and Washington.

Zebari told The Independent newspaper that in theory, Maliki's government should be able to solve the bitter sectarian divisions in Iraq because Shia, Kurd and Sunni were elected members of the administration.

However, he painted a picture of a deeply divided government in which senior Sunni members praised insurgents as "the heroic resistance".

Maliki's previous foreign visits have been to Iraq's Arab neighbours, and his planned Washington visit has drawn criticism.

Radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, head of the powerful armed Shiite Mehdi Army militia in Iraq, has said that Maliki's visit to Washington is a "humiliation" and has demanded the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.

The Times newspaper said Monday there were signs of progress in Iraq but warned that the situation could swiftly degenerate.

The daily said it expected specific details on how Maliki would tackle the Mehdi Army.

"He must stand his ground there, or Sunni insurgents will never lay down arms," The Times said in its editorial.

"In turn, London and Washington must listen closely as he sets out what external support Iraq most needs, not least in better equipment for its police and armed forces.

"Iraq's friends -- and that should mean every civilised nation -- must offer not vague promises for the future but practical contributions in the here and now.

"Lebanon commands the headlines but it is in Iraq that the future of the Middle East hangs in the balance."

Bombers in Iraq killed at least 64 people on Sunday, striking a bloody blow against the country's hopes for peace just one day after the government launched national reconciliation talks.

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