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Clinton pledges continued support for Iraq

Iranian cleric blames U.S. for new violence

BAGHDAD – On a surprise visit to Baghdad on Saturday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton sought to reassure anxious Iraqis that the U.S. would not abandon them despite plans to start withdrawing U.S. troops soon.

Her visit coincided with a sudden surge of violence that had claimed the lives of nearly 160 people in the previous two days. But Clinton said she was confident that the bloodshed did not mean recent gains in security were being eroded.

“These are tragic, terrible events, but they don’t reflect any diversion from the security progress that has been made,” she told reporters at a briefing with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.

Clinton’s first visit to Iraq as secretary of state came the day after two suicide bombers killed 71 people at a Shiite Muslim shrine. The previous day, 88 people died in two other bombings, stirring fear that the insurgency is recovering its strength as U.S. forces are preparing to leave.

Nearly half the victims were Iranian pilgrims who were visiting Iraqi shrines. On Saturday, Iran’s supreme leader accused the United States of carrying out the attacks.

“The main suspects in this crime and crimes similar to that are American security and military forces who ruthlessly occupied the Muslim country under the umbrella of the ‘war on terrorism,’ ” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said, Iranian state television reported.

Many Iraqis, regardless of religious or ethnic group, appear to resent the increased role Iran has played in their country since the fall of Saddam Hussein. The U.S. military alleges that some Shiite insurgent groups receive arms and training from Iran.

Khamenei’s accusation may be taken by such militants as a signal to step up attacks on U.S. forces.

Clinton said the ayatollah’s statement was disappointing, and blamed the attacks instead on remnants of al-Qaida in Iraq and other violent groups.

She said Iraq could continue to count on U.S. support, albeit in different forms.

“The end of the United States combat presence in Iraq by 2011 will mark the beginning of a new phase of our countries’ relationship. As we draw down militarily, we will deepen our civilian cooperation,” she said.

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