- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 22, 2007

11:59 a.m.

BAGHDAD — A rocket landed near the prime minister’s office today during the first visit to Iraq by the head of the United Nations in nearly a year and a half, sending Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon ducking unharmed behind a podium at a press conference.

The attack came as Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government said it had been negotiating with Sunni insurgents for months and the U.S. military said it had released a senior aide to Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr on Mr. al-Maliki’s request.

The rocket caused no injuries but rattled the building in the heavily guarded Green Zone, sent small chips of debris floating from the ceiling and left a 3-foot-wide crater about 50 yards away outside. Mr. al-Maliki told his security guards “Nothing’s wrong,” as they moved to grab him, and the press conference kept going.

The explosion occurred right after Mr. al-Maliki finished telling reporters that Mr. Ban’s visit was a sign that Iraq was on the road to stability.

“We consider it a positive message to the world in which you confirm that Baghdad has returned to playing host to important world figures because it has made huge strides on the road toward stability,” Mr. al-Maliki said in his opening remarks.

The last visit to Iraq by a head of the United Nations was in November 2005 by Mr. Ban’s predecessor, Kofi Annan.

The United Nations headquarters in Baghdad was bombed by militants on Aug. 19, 2003, and 22 persons died, including the top U.N. envoy, Sergio Vieira de Mello. The United Nations’ international staff withdrew from Iraq in October 2003 following a second assault on its offices and other attacks on humanitarian workers. A small staff gradually has been allowed to return since August 2004.

The United States said it believed that the peace process could be helped by Ahmed al-Shibani, who was captured in the holy Shi’ite city of Najaf during fierce clashes in 2004 between U.S. forces and Sheik al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia, which largely has cooperated with a new security push by U.S. and Iraqi forces.

The government released a photograph showing Mr. al-Maliki receiving a smiling Mr. al-Shibani at his office, underlining the close ties between the prime minister and Sheik al-Sadr. Sheik al-Sadr’s support kept Mr. al-Maliki in his job last year because the cleric’s loyalists have 30 of parliament’s 275 seats and six Cabinet posts.

The U.S. military said it had determined that Mr. al-Shibani “could play a potentially important role in helping to moderate extremism and foster reconciliation in Iraq.”

Authorities imposed an indefinite curfew on the southern city of Basra after clashes between the Mahdi Army and the rival Shi’ite Fadhila party, which recently withdrew from the al-Maliki government.

Clashes also erupted near the residence of Basra’s Fadhila governor, Mohammed al-Waeli, and continued into the afternoon, police said. The clashes came days after British forces pulled out of their main base in the heart of Basra.

The U.S. military announced that it had captured the leaders of a Shi’ite insurgent network “directly connected” to the killing in January of five American soldiers in the holy city of Karbala by gunmen speaking English, wearing U.S. military uniforms and carrying American weapons.

The military said the arrests of Qais Khazaali, his brother Laith Khazaali and several other members of the network took place over the past three days.

The U.S. military reported that two soldiers and a Marine were killed in combat yesterday. One soldier was killed in Baghdad; a second soldier and a Marine perished in Anbar province, the Sunni insurgent stronghold west of Baghdad.

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