BAGHDAD - The Iraqi government said yesterday that the United States needed to take bolder steps to interact directly with Iran in order to improve security across the Middle East.

Iraqi National Security Adviser Mouwaffak al-Rubaie warned Washington that a strategy of aligning its Sunni Gulf allies against Iran would only further exacerbate tensions in the region.

"The United States, until they seriously engage with Iran . . . the long-term regional security will be in doubt," al-Rubaie said on the final day of a regional security summit in the Bahraini capital Manama.

It was a sharp rebuke to Washington a day after Defense Secretary Robert Gates called on Persian Gulf countries to pressure Tehran to renounce its nuclear program.

The U.S. has refused to hold talks with Iran until it suspends uranium enrichment, a process that can be used to produce fuel for both nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. Iran has insisted its nuclear program is intended for energy production and not for weapons development, as claimed by the U.S. and its allies.

Meanwhile, Iraq's defense minister yesterday promised to wage a new crackdown in a volatile province northeast of Baghdad where militants are trying to regroup after being routed from their urban stronghold there last summer.

Suicide attacks have killed more than 20 people in the last three days in Diyala province, a tribal patchwork of Sunni Arabs, Shiites and Kurds that stretches from Baghdad to the border with Iran.

Defense Minister Abdul-Qader al-Obeidi told the Associated Press that preparations had begun for a fresh military operation in the provincial capital, Baqouba, about 35 miles from Baghdad.

"If we succeed in controlling areas of Diyala close to Baghdad, the rate of incidents in Baghdad decreases by 95 percent," al-Obeidi told the AP.

In other developments, an Iraqi investigating magistrate yesterday convened the first criminal hearing in the case of Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein, who has been held by the U.S. military without charges for nearly 20 months.

Hussein was present for most of the nearly seven-hour, closed-door proceeding in the Central Criminal Court of Iraq before magistrate Dhia al-Kinani. It was the first time Hussein or his lawyers have seen any of the materials gathered by the U.S. military against him since his arrest in Ramadi on April 12, 2006.

Al-Kinani, however, issued an order that the proceedings and details of the material presented remain secret.

Hussein's defense attorney, Paul Gardephe, said no formal charges had been lodged. Gardephe was permitted to see some material during the proceeding but was forbidden from taking any copies with him to aid in building his defense.

In the past, Pentagon spokesmen have alleged that Hussein was suspected in a range of terrorist-related activities.

"There is still no formal charge against Bilal, and the Associated Press continues to believe that Bilal Hussein was a photojournalist working in a war zone and that claims that he is involved with insurgent activities are false," said AP spokesman Paul Colford in a statement.

"Because the judge ordered that the proceedings today be kept secret, we are restricted from saying anything further."

In Baghdad, a U.S. military spokesman also declined to provide details beyond saying that the hearing was held by the Central Criminal Court of Iraq.

Also yesterday, the police chief of Basra said that religious vigilantes have killed at least 40 women this year in the southern Iraqi city because of how they dressed, their mutilated bodies found with notes warning against "violating Islamic teachings." *