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Baghdad Blast Rattles U.N. Chief

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.
  • Annan pulled all U.N. international staff out of Iraq in October 2003, after two bombings at U.N. headquarters in Baghdad and a spate of attacks on humanitarian workers. The first bombing, on Aug. 19, 2003, killed the top U.N. envoy, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and 21 others.

    In August 2004, the secretary-general allowed a small U.N. contingent to return to Baghdad and imposed a ceiling of 35 international staffers. The ceiling has steadily increased since then, but the total number has remained relatively low because of the security situation.

    Also Thursday, The U.S. military said it had captured the leaders of a Shiite insurgent network responsible for kidnapping and killing five American troops — one of the boldest and most sophisticated attacks on U.S. soldiers in the war in Iraq. The network was "directly connected" to the January kidnapping and murder of the Americans in the holy city of Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad, the military said.

    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 - had American weapons, wore new U.S. military combat fatigues, and spoke English, according to two senior U.S. military officials as well as Iraqi officials.

    Additionally, CBS News reports a U.S. military spokesman said the group might be tied to the trafficking of Explosively Formed Penetrators (EFPS), which can pierce most of the battlefield armor used in the war and are blamed for more than 170 American deaths since they first appeared in 2004.

    "We do suspect and are looking at this network also being involved in smuggling Explosively Formed Penetrators into Baghdad," Lt. Col. Christopher Garver told CBS News correspondent Cami McCormick.

    Garver added that in February there was a 47 percent decrease in the use of the powerful roadside bombs, correcting statistics initially reported by CBS News. Garver said "the trend remains the same", but the numbers aren't "as significant."

    Meanwhile, Saad Yousif al-Muttalibi of the Ministry of National Dialogue and Reconciliation said talks with Sunni insurgent groups were initiated at the request of the insurgents and have been taking place inside and outside Iraq over the past three months.

    He refused to identify the groups, but said they did not include al Qaeda in Iraq or Saddam Hussein loyalists. Members of the former president's outlawed Baath party took part, he added.

    Speaking to The Associated Press in a telephone interview Thursday, al-Muttalibi said the negotiations were deadlocked over the insurgent groups' insistence that they would lay down their arms only when a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S.-led coalition troops in Iraq is announced.

    The government's response was that such a move could only be taken when security is restored.

    Future rounds of negotiations are planned, he said, but did not elaborate.

    Al-Muttalibi's comments came one day after he expressed optimism in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp. that al-Maliki's government was making progress in talks with insurgent groups, predicting some factions might be close to laying down their arms.

    "One of the aims is to join with them in the fight against al Qaeda (in Iraq)," he told the BBC.

    Reports have periodically surfaced in the past three years of talks between Iraqi and U.S. authorities and representatives of Sunni insurgent groups, but details of the contents of these negotiations and whether they made any progress always have been sketchy.

    Groups said to have taken part in such talks often denied their participation in statements posted on the Internet.

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