Global Policy Forum

UN Chief Shaken by Baghdad Explosion

March 22, 2007

UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon was left shaken but unhurt on his first visit to Baghdad today after a rocket landed yards from where he and Iraq's prime minister were holding a press conference. Mr Ban, who flew into Baghdad this morning, ducked behind the podium when the impact shook the building as he addressed reporters alongside Nuri al-Maliki in the prime minister's office, inside Baghdad's fortified green zone. It happened just as Mr al-Maliki had finished telling reporters how Iraq was gradually returning to stability. The rocket landed around 50m away and left a 1m-wide crater, slightly wounding two guards, according to journalists who went out to investigate. "Is it ok?" Mr Ban was heard asking an aide. Mr al-Maliki's security staff began to move the Iraqi prime minister away, but he shook off their attentions, saying: "Nothing's wrong". The press conference then continued, even as small pieces of debris came down from the ceiling. Ahead of the attack, Mr al-Maliki was explaining how the secretary general's visit was a sign that Iraq was on the road to stability. "We consider it a positive message to 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," he said.

Mr Ban said only that he had a "very good meeting" with Mr al-Maliki, pledging UN support for his government. Mr Ban, the former South Korean foreign minister who took over from Kofi Annan as the secretary general in January, is making his first visit to Iraq on the unannounced one-day visit. The United Nations has been operating in Iraq at greatly reduced levels since international staffers were withdrawn in October 2003, following an attack on its headquarters. The UN envoy to Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, was among 22 people killed in the truck bombing in Baghdad in August 2003.

His visit came as a senior Iraqi official said the country's government was holding talks with Sunni insurgent groups in an attempt to persuade them to lay down their arms. Saad Yousif al-Muttalibi, of the Ministry of National Dialogue and Reconciliation, said the talks were initiated at the request of the insurgents, and had been taking place both inside and outside Iraq over the past three months. He refused to identify the groups involved, but said they did not include al-Qaida in Iraq or Saddam Hussein loyalists.

Members of the former president's Ba'ath party did, however, take part, he added. Mr al-Muttalibi said negotiations were deadlocked over the insurgent groups' insistence that they would lay down their arms only when a timetable for the withdrawal of US-led troops in Iraq was announced. The government's response was that such a move could only be taken when security is restored. He spoke a day after expressing optimism, in an interview with the BBC, that the Iraqi government was making progress in talks with insurgent groups and predicted that some factions could be close to laying down their arms. "One of the aims is to join with them in the fight against al-Qaida [in Iraq]," he told the BBC.

In a separate BBC interview, the Iraqi vice-president, Tareq al-Hashemi, called for talks with every insurgent group except al-Qaida. Militants were "just part of the Iraqi communities", Mr Hashemi, who is a Sunni, said. He added that all groups "should be invited, should be called to sit down around the table to discuss their fears, their reservations". Over the past three years, reports have periodically surfaced of talks between Iraqi and US authorities and representatives of Sunni insurgent groups. However, details of the contents of these negotiations and whether they made any progress have always been sketchy. Groups said to have taken part in such talks have often used internet statements to deny their participation.

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