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Rocket Explodes Near U.N Chief
Associated Press  |  March 23, 2007
BAGHDAD - A Katyusha rocket exploded 50 yards from the U.N. secretary-general during a Green Zone news conference Thursday, just minutes after Iraq's leader said the visit showed Baghdad was "on the road to stability." Ban Ki-moon appeared shaken but was not hurt.

The rocket was fired from a predominantly Shiite area on the east bank of the Tigris River, not far from The Associated Press office. The heavily guarded Green Zone - site of the U.S. Embassy, Iraq's government and the national parliament - sits on the opposite bank.

Ban's unannounced stop in the Iraqi capital was the first by the United Nations' top official since Kofi Annan, the previous U.N. chief, visited in November 2005.

The U.N. presence in Iraq has been much smaller than planned after the organization's Baghdad headquarters was bombed by militants on Aug. 19, 2003, and 22 people died, including the top U.N. envoy, Sergio Vieira de Mello.

That was one of the first major attacks as Sunni insurgents began rallying against American forces and other outsiders after the U.S. invasion. The U.N.'s international staff withdrew from Iraq in October 2003 after a second assault on its offices and other attacks on humanitarian workers. A small staff has gradually been allowed to return since August 2004.

Iraq's Shiite-dominated government has been quietly pushing for a greater U.N. role and was banking on decreased violence in the capital to show that it was returning to normal six weeks into a joint security crackdown with American forces.

"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," Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had said in opening remarks, moments before the rocket attack.

Ban's presence in Baghdad was broadcast on television shortly after he arrived, but the visit had been kept so secret even his press spokeswoman Michele Montas didn't know he was in Iraq. Ban had been scheduled to leave New York on Thursday for a trip to Egypt, Israel and the African Union summit in Saudi Arabia.

The U.S. military, meanwhile, said two more soldiers and a Marine were killed in combat. One soldier was killed in Baghdad and a soldier and a Marine died in Anbar province. The three perished on Wednesday.

At least 44 Iraqis were killed or found dead Thursday, including 25 bodies that were dumped in the capital, all showing signs of torture, police said.

And in a major breakthrough against rogue Shiite militants, the military said it captured two brothers "directly connected" to the sophisticated January sneak attack in Karbala that killed five American soldiers.

Qais al-Khazaali, his brother Laith al-Khazaali and several other members of the network were rounded up over the past three days for the Jan. 20 attack. Gunmen speaking English, wearing U.S. military uniforms and carrying American weapons had abducted four U.S. soldiers at Karbala's provincial headquarters and later shot them to death several miles away. A fifth soldier was killed during the attack.

An initial statement by the U.S. military on the day of the raid said the five soldiers were killed while "repelling" the attack on the compound in Karbala, 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of Baghdad.

But after a Jan. 26 report by The Associated Press, the military reversed itself and confirmed that three of the soldiers were dead and one was mortally wounded with a gunshot to the head after they were abducted and taken to a neighboring province, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) from Karbala.

The brazen assault, was conducted by nine to 12 gunmen posing as an American security team, the military confirmed. The attackers traveled in black GMC Suburban vehicles - the type used by U.S. government convoys.

On Wednesday, the AP reported two senior commanders from the Mahdi Army Shiite militia identified Qais al-Khazaali as the leader of up to 3,000 fighters who had defected from the Mahdi Army militia, were now financed directly by Iran and no longer loyal to firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Al-Khazaali is a cleric in his early 30s - a tall, slender man who was a close al-Sadr aide in 2003 and 2004. He was al-Sadr's chief spokesman for most of 2004 and had not been seen in public since late that year.

Also Thursday, the Iraqi government said it had been in indirect talks with Sunni insurgent groups for several months but remained deadlocked because it would give no timetable for an American troop withdrawal.

More talks were planned, but Saad Yousif al-Muttalibi, of the Ministry of National Dialogue and Reconciliation, would give no details. He refused to identify the groups, but said they did not include al-Qaida in Iraq or Saddam Hussein loyalists.

The U.S. military also said it had released a senior aide to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr on al-Maliki's request because it believed Ahmed al-Shibani could help with U.S. and Iraqi moves to quell violence in Baghdad, "moderate extremism and foster reconciliation in Iraq."

He was captured in the holy Shiite city of Najaf during fierce clashes in 2004 between U.S. forces and al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, which has largely cooperated with a new security push by U.S. and Iraqi forces.

The government released a photograph showing al-Maliki receiving a smiling al-Shibani at his office, underlining the close ties between the prime minister and al-Sadr. Al-Sadr's support won al-Maliki his job last year, since the cleric's loyalists have 30 of parliament's 275 seats.

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