Baghdad blast startles Ban

The Baltimore Sun

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- An exploding rocket narrowly missed a building in the heavily protected Green Zone yesterday afternoon where U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon was appearing on live television with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, startling the U.N. leader on his first visit to Iraq in his new position.

Ban had just finished answering a question at a news conference about whether or when the U.N. might re-establish full-fledged operations here when the rocket struck.

"We would like to increase the number of the U.N. offices in Iraq," Ban had said, adding he would consider reopening an office here as "the situation on the ground" improves.

Then the explosion struck. No one was injured, but Ban appeared shaken. He ducked, and a look of shock came over his face. Al-Maliki and Ban took one more question and then concluded the session.

The U.N. curtailed its presence in Iraq after its Baghdad headquarters were leveled in a car bomb attack in 2003 that killed 22 people, including the U.N.'s top envoy here, Sergio Vieira de Mello. The U.N. conducts most of its Iraq operations from Jordan.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military announced that it had captured several members of a group responsible for a January attack in Karbala in which four American soldiers were kidnapped and later killed. Those arrested included a top aide to anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. U.S. forces also announced the discovery of a car bomb factory in Baghdad and the arrest of an al-Qaida in Iraq operative said to be running it.

Elsewhere in Baghdad, police said they found the bodies of 25 men shot to death. A roadside bomb and a car bomb killed one and injured three in the Amiriya neighborhood. In addition, gunmen opened fire on a minibus as it passed through the Sunni insurgent stronghold of Dora, killing one passenger and injuring two others.

Also in Baghdad, rare evidence of simmering tensions between Shiite factions boiled into public view yesterday when followers of al-Sadr stormed the office of a rival Shiite political party in southern Iraq, wounding nine people and prompting a citywide daytime curfew, according to police and hospital officials.

The assault seems to have been prompted by a dispute between al-Sadr followers and a member of the Fadhila political party within the Electricity Ministry that serves the area. The governor's house was also attacked.

It came just one day after three alleged al-Sadr followers in the southern city of Kut stopped the mayor's car and shot him to death with the help of six members of the local police force.

Christian Berthelsen writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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