BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Iran’s foreign minister on Friday rejected a U.S. offer of direct talks on Iraq, as Tehran hardened its position against international pressure to stop uranium enrichment.

Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said Iran changed its mind about holding talks with Washington on Iraq because the Americans raised “other issues.” He did not elaborate, but the sides have been sparring over Iran’s nuclear program and Tehran reportedly wants to talk directly to the U.S. on that subject as well.

Mottaki got a boost from his Iraqi counterpart, who said Iran has the right to peaceful nuclear research – a stance that runs counter to U.S. efforts to force Tehran to stop all nuclear activities amid fears it is seeking to develop atomic weapons.

Mottaki’s visit, which came nearly a week after the new Iraqi government took office, was only the second by a high-level Iranian delegation since Saddam Hussein was ousted in April 2003.

Also Friday, Italy announced it would pull 1,100 of its troops from the U.S.-led coalition in June, the first specific numbers about its planned withdrawal. The country has some 2,700 troops in Iraq, mostly in the southern city of Nasiriyah.

Bombs, meanwhile, hit three outdoor markets in Baghdad, killing at least 18 people and wounding more than 60. Sunni leaders also closed mosques in the southern city of Basra to protest the drive-by killing of Sunni imam Wafiq al-Hamdani as he was walking to his mosque.

Four police officers, including a lieutenant colonel, were killed in northern Kirkuk, police said. Gunmen also killed a doorman in west Baghdad.

Police said four bodies were found Friday in Kut, 100 miles southeast of Baghdad, including the corpse of a member of the al-Mahdi Shiite militia.

The apparent sectarian attacks provided fresh examples of the difficulties faced by new Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki even as he said two key security posts could be filled within days.

Deputies close to the negotiations said it was doubtful a decision would be made by Saturday, although at least one Shiite appeared to be edging toward getting the interior minister portfolio – former National Security Adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie.

The Iranians and the U.S. had expressed willingness earlier this year to hold meetings on how to stabilize Iraq.

But Mottaki, speaking at a news conference with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, said Iran had changed its mind.

“Unfortunately, the American side tried to use this decision as a propaganda and they raised some other issues. They tried to create a negative atmosphere,” he said.

The foreign minister later said Iran would strike back against any U.S. attack. “In case the Americans attack Iran anywhere, Iran will respond to the attack,” he said.

Zebari said the Iraqis wanted a Middle East safe from weapons of mass destruction, but he stressed Iran’s right to develop nuclear energy.

“We believe that Iran has the right to research in nuclear power for peaceful purposes,” he said.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said Sunday that he was ready to talk with the Iranians about their relationship with Iraq. And Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice went on Arab television Tuesday to say Washington recognizes Iran’s role in Iraq, as long as it is constructive.

White House press secretary Tony Snow reiterated Wednesday that the United States would not consider direct talks with Iran on the nuclear issue until it ends uranium enrichment and allows international inspections to verify it has done so.

The faltering diplomacy highlighted the delicacy of attempts to overcome 27 years of estrangement since the seizure of the U.S. Embassy after Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The only publicly acknowledged discussions between the two countries came in early 2003, among lower-level officials in preparation for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Both nations also have sat together in some regional diplomatic groups, including talks after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001.

Tehran has long publicly rejected one-on-one talks with the nation it calls the “Great Satan.” But Iran wants to maintain its influence with majority Shiite Muslims in Iraq and to avoid possible U.N. Security Council sanctions over its nuclear program.

The deadliest bomb Friday exploded under a car in the Shiite Nahda area of Baghdad at a market packed with shoppers. Nine people were killed and 30 wounded.

A bomb also exploded in a market in the western Baghdad neighborhood of al-Bayaa, wounding 13 civilians, and a bomb went off in a parked car at a market in southeastern Baghdad, killing four people and wounding 20.

Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub and Qais al-Bashir contributed to this story from Baghdad.

AP-ES-05-26-06 1708EDT

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