BAGHDAD – A rocket exploded 50 yards from the U.N. secretary-general during a news conference Thursday in Baghdad’s Green Zone, causing him to cringe and duck just minutes after Iraq’s prime minister said the visit showed the city was “on the road to stability.”
The Katyusha rocket that hit near Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was fired from a mainly Shiite area on the east bank of the Tigris River. The heavily guarded Green Zone on the opposite bank is home to the U.S. Embassy, Iraq’s government and the parliament.
Ban’s unannounced stop in the Iraqi capital was the first visit by a U.N. secretary-general since Kofi Annan, his predecessor, came to Baghdad in November 2005. The U.N. Security Council issued a statement strongly condemning the rocket firing as an “abhorrent terrorist attack.”
The U.N. presence in Iraq has been much smaller than planned since militants bombed the organization’s Baghdad headquarters on Aug. 19, 2003, and killed 22 people, including the top U.N. envoy, Sergio Vieira de Mello.
That was one of the first major attacks as Sunni Arab insurgents began rallying against American forces and other foreign troops after the U.S.-led invasion. Foreign U.N. 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.
The U.S. military announced three Americans died in combat Wednesday – an Army soldier slain in Baghdad and another soldier and a Marine killed in Anbar province. At least 44 Iraqis were killed or found dead Thursday, including 25 bodies dumped in the capital, all showing signs of torture, police said.
The U.S. military, meanwhile, reported a major breakthrough in the campaign against rogue Shiite militants, saying it captured two brothers responsible for a sophisticated sneak attack that killed five American soldiers in January.
The military said it captured the brothers who were “directly connected” to the Jan. 20 sneak attack that killed five American soldiers guarding the provincial headquarters in Karbala, a city 50 miles south of Baghdad.
Qais al-Khazaali, his brother Laith al-Khazaali and several other members of their network were rounded up over the past three days, the military said.
Qais Al-Khazaali, a Shiite cleric in his early 30s, was a close aide to cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in 2003 and 2004. He was al-Sadr’s chief spokesman for most of 2004 but had not been seen in public since late that year.
Gunmen speaking English, wearing U.S. military uniforms and carrying American weapons killed one American soldier during that attack, then carried off four captured soldiers and later shot them to death about 25 miles 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 Suburbans – the type of SUV used by U.S. government convoys.
Also Thursday, the Iraqi government said it had been in indirect talks with some Sunni insurgent groups for several months but the effort to persuade the groups to lay down their arms remained deadlocked because it wouldn’t set a timetable for a U.S. 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.