- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 22, 2007

NEW YORK — A mortar attack rattled U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon yesterday during an unannounced trip to Baghdad, potentially undermining his message of U.N. support for the security and stability of Iraq.

Mr. Ban, who was in the middle of a press conference with Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki, looked stunned and ducked at the sound of the explosion. Mr. al-Maliki scarcely reacted, while some reporters raced for the doors.

A small U.N. contingent arrived in Baghdad yesterday for meetings relating to the International Compact for Iraq, a five-year effort to increase international technical and financial support for the Iraqi government.

Before the rocket hit about 50 yards away outside the building in the fortified Green Zone, Mr. Ban told reporters that he had a “very good meeting” with Mr. al-Maliki and international diplomats based in the Iraqi capital. He also expressed support for the Iraqi government.

“The secretary-general stressed to the prime minister the need to include all major political groups in the political process, the importance of upholding international human rights standards, and the U.N.’s commitment to move forward on the International Compact for Iraq,” said U.N. spokeswoman Marie Okabe, who added that an investigation into the source of the attack was under way.

No one was injured by the rocket.

The Bush administration has urged the United Nations to take a more active role in Iraq’s reconstruction, which remains hamstrung by persistent violence, sectarian fighting and destabilizing flows of internally displaced families.

Just last week, Zalmay Khalilzad, the administration’s nominee for U.N. ambassador, said during his confirmation hearing that he would press the organization to take on more responsibility in Iraq.

Speaking at Irbil, in the heart of Kurdish territory, Mr. Khalilzad expressed regret yesterday that he is leaving Iraq mired in violence, but he pointed to the country’s relatively peaceful Kurdish region as a “shining example” of the way things should be.

The Afghanistan-born Mr. Khalilzad, who turned 56 yesterday, pledged to keep working for peace in Iraq if he is confirmed as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, but he said it would ultimately be up to Iraq’s divided leaders to make hard compromises and unify the country.

His remarks came as he made a farewell tour of the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq while Kurds marked the second day of Norooz, the Kurdish and Iranian New Year.

The United Nations has 55 to 65 staff members posted in Iraq — not including significant armed security — with the majority based in the more stable Kurdish north.

Most of those in Baghdad are deployed inside the Green Zone, where they work with the Iraqi government to build an independent electoral commission, oversee human rights and help with governance issues.

Mrs. Okabe could not say whether the attack would deter the organization from expanding its work in the country or even whether that is their long-term intention.

But U.N. security personnel said preparations are under way to expand the number of staffers in Baghdad by the summer. They are building more housing for U.N. personnel inside the Green Zone, which also houses the offices of the Iraqi government and the homes and offices of U.S., British and other foreign diplomatic missions.

A U.N. secretariat official said yesterday that if security permits, the United Nations would be prepared to send 95 others to Iraq in addition to those based in nearby Amman, Jordan.

“We’re keeping the numbers relatively low because in January and parts of February, there were lots of mortars in the Green Zone,” said one U.N. official. “That has improved with the new Baghdad security plan, but it’s still too early to see if the trend will hold.”

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