( AP ) - Iraq's most influential Shiite politician said Sunday that the U.S had not backed up claims that Iran is fueling violence here, underscoring a wide gap on the issue between Washington and the Shiite-led Baghdad government.
A draft bill to ease curbs on ex-Saddam Hussein loyalists in government services also drew sharp criticism from Shiite lawmakers, opening old wounds at a time when the United States is pressing the Iraqis for compromise for the sake of national unity.
The Americans have long accused the Iranians of arming and training Shiite militias, including some linked to the U.S.-backed government of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
U.S. officials have also alleged that Iran has provided weapons used to kill Americans - a charge the Iranians vehemently deny.
"These are only accusations raised by the multinational forces and I think these accusations need more proof," Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Islamic Iraq Council, told reporters.
Al-Hakim, who has been undergoing treatment for lung cancer in Iran, said the Iranians have insisted in meetings with Iraqi officials that "their true will is to support the Iraqi government" and to promote stability.
"They have a long history of standing by the Iraqi people and that is their official stance that is presented to the press without any hesitation," he said.
Al-Hakim spent years in exile in Iran during Saddam's regime and is considered closer to the Iranians than any of the major Iraqi Shiite leaders. His party has also closely cooperated with American authorities since the 2003 collapse of Saddam's regime, and he has met with President Bush in the Oval Office.
His comments were made ahead of a new round of talks between U.S. and Iranian officials here over ways to promote stability in Iraq and exploit the sharp downturn in violence since the U.S. sent 30,000 reinforcements early this year.
No date for the next U.S.-Iranian talks has been announced. The Americans are expected to raise concerns about Iranian influence among Shiite armed groups, although U.S. officials have said they believe the flow of Iranian arms has been curtailed.
This month, the U.S. military released nine Iranians who had been held in Iraq for months. They included two accused of being members of the elite Quds Force suspected of arming Shiite extremists.
But the U.S. military has blamed an Iranian-backed Shiite cell for a bombing Friday in a Baghdad market that killed 15 people - the deadliest attack in the heart of the capital in more than two months.
A U.S. military spokesman, Rear. Adm. Gregory Smith stressed he was not accusing Iran of ordering the attack.
Nonetheless, Iran dismissed any suggestion that it was at fault.
"Contradictory reports have been heard about the bombing. But remarks by the Americans were made with the aim of making propaganda against Iran," Mohammad Ali Hosseini, spokesman for Iran's Foreign Ministry, told reporters Sunday in Tehran.
Although major Kurdish and Shiite parties maintain ties to Iran, suspicion of the Iranians runs deep within the country's Sunni Arab community, including those groups that have abandoned the insurgency and agreed to work with American forces.
Sunni fears of Iranian domination are among the obstacles standing in the way of reconciliation among Iraq's religious and ethnic communities.
Another hurdle has been Sunni complaints that they have been marginalized politically by regulations that banned former members of Saddam's Baath party from holding government jobs or running for public office.
The United States has been pressing the Iraqis to relax the ban to allow thousands of lower-ranking Baathists to regain their posts.
On Sunday, parliament began debate on the latest draft bill. But the session adjourned after Shiite legislators loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr began pounding their fists on their tables in protest.
"This law is unconstitutional and moreover, it worries about the future of the Baathists while ignoring their victims who suffered a lot because of Baath party and the regime," Nasser al-Rubaie, parliamentary leader of the 30-member Sadrist bloc, told The Associated Press.
The prospect of rehabilitating former Baathists did not sit well with Shiite lawmakers from other political parties. Many of them suffered terribly under the Sunni-dominated Saddam regime.
"This draft amounts to an unannounced general pardon by the government," said Safiya al-Suhail, a Shiite woman lawmaker whose father was assassinated by Saddam's agents in Beirut in the 1990s.
"There is no punishment for wrongdoers," she added. "The victims of the former regime should see justice done to them. We will not accept national reconciliation at the expense of justice."
Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish lawmaker, said parliament would discuss the draft again on Wednesday.
"I think that the bill is in general a good one," Othman said. "The country is in dire need of national reconciliation...Iraqis should abandon revenge and adopt forgiveness."
Meanwhile, at least 21 people were killed or found dead nationwide on Sunday.
Ten of those died in two bombings in the capital - a car bomb near a medical complex in Baghdad that killed nine and one in a roadside bomb targeting an Iraqi army patrol. Nearly 40 people were injured in the two blasts.
Still, the carnage is well below the levels of last year, when Shiite and Sunni extremists swarmed the city, slaughtering members of the rival sect.