Baghdad Blast Rattles U.N. Chief

Ban Ki-moon reacts after an explosion hits Baghdad's Green Zone, March 22, 2007. Ban is in Baghdad to meet with Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. CBS

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was unharmed but ducked behind the podium after a rocket landed near Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's office Thursday while the two men were speaking to reporters at a news conference.

Two Iraqi security guards on the grounds outside the building were slightly wounded, security officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.

An Associated Press reporter ran outside and saw a crater one-meter in diameter about 50 meters from the building where the news conference was in progress. Two cars were damaged.

Al-Maliki security officials said it was a rocket attack. U.S. helicopters were quickly in the air headed in the direction from which the rocket was fired.

Small chips of debris floated down from the ceiling above the U.N. chief after the big explosion rattled the building in the Green Zone. He looked frightened, casting his eyes right and left as he rose after ducking behind the podium where he was standing and answering questions next to the prime minister.

Al-Maliki said "nothing's wrong" as one of his security men started to grab the prime minister. The two men quickly resumed answering questions. The rocket landed as one of Ban's questions was being translated. They ended the question and answer session minutes later.

The sound of the weapon being fired — which sounded like a rocket launch — could be heard not far from The Associated Press office, which is across the Tigris River to the east of the Green Zone, which also houses the U.S. Embassy and Iraqi government offices.

Al-Maliki had just finished telling reporters that Ban's visit was a sign that Iraq was on the road to stability.

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

Ban and al-Maliki were speaking to reporters after meeting for about one hour in the heavily fortified Green Zone. Ban was to leave Baghdad later Thursday after the first visit by the top U.N. official in nearly a year and a half. His predecessor, Kofi Annan, was in the Iraqi capital in November 2005.

"The new Secretary General is making a point with his travels — that he is willing to play an activist role in diplomacy," said CBS News foreign affairs analyst Pamela Falk from the U.N. Thursday. "And given how many international crises are brewing right now, his role is being welcomed by most nations."

In other developments:

  • A Senate committee approved a $122 billion measure Thursday financing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but also calling on President Bush to pull combat troops out of Iraq by next spring. The bill, approved by a voice vote, is similar to one the House began debating Thursday. The White House has threatened to veto the House measure and issued a veto threat against an earlier, similar version of the Senate withdrawal language.

  • A shortage of safe drinking water in Iraq is threatening to increase diarrhea, a leading killer of children in the country, the United Nations said Thursday. Violence makes it difficult to protect Iraqi water officials and repair pipes damaged by sabotage, but U.N. officials partly blamed inadequate funding, both for Iraqi water systems and the world body's own operations.

  • Three retired military officers on a multi-state tour say the best solution to end the war is removing U.S. troops in a phased withdrawal, not sending more soldiers. Former U.S. Navy Capt. Lawrence Korb, former New Mexico Adjutant General Mel Montano and U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Robert Gard, all of whom served in Vietnam, stopped in Arkansas Wednesday on their tour to urge Congress to oppose President Bush's troop surge.

  • A government audit says the U.S. has hard lessons to learn from Iraq reconstruction. Investigators say poor contract oversight and bad planning have led to multi million-dollar mistakes and unless things change, the same mistakes could happen again somewhere else. The audit was being released Thursday by the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction.

  • In the southern city of Basra, clashes erupted Thursday between militiamen loyal to radical anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and guards outside the headquarters of the rival Shiite Fadhila party, police said. The building caught fire and the guards fled, they said. There were no casualties.

    • Alfonso Serrano

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