BAGHDAD (Reuters) - U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was left shaken but unhurt on Thursday on his first visit to Baghdad after a Katyusha rocket landed just meters from a building where he was giving a news conference.
Moments after telling journalists he might boost the United Nations’ presence in Iraq because of improved security, a thunderous blast sent shockwaves through the conference venue, startling Ban and sending him ducking for cover behind a podium.
Security guards grabbed hold of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki who was standing next to Ban at the time and was dusted by small bits of debris that fell from the ceiling.
Without commenting on the explosion, which sent a large column of smoke into the air, Ban recovered his composure and took one further question before leaving the conference room.
Interior Minister Jawad Bolani played down the incident afterwards, telling Reuters: “This was not a security breach. Things like this happen in Baghdad once or twice a week.”
A Reuters reporter at the scene said the rocket landed on a small building about 50 meters from the news conference venue, a guesthouse in the prime minister’s compound. The Interior Ministry said it landed in a field outside the compound.
Earlier, Ban praised Maliki’s “strong leadership” and said: “As we see the improved situation on the ground, I am considering to increase the presence of the United Nations.”
Tens of thousands of Iraqi and U.S. troops have launched a major crackdown in Baghdad to curb rampant sectarian violence and have had some success in reducing the number of daily car bombings and shootings in the city.
The United Nations cut back many of its activities in Iraq after a truck bombing on its Baghdad headquarters in August 2003 that killed U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello and 21 others, and an attack on the International Committee of the Red Cross office.
Ban’s trip, the first by the top U.N. official since his predecessor, Kofi Annan, visited in November 2005, was staged with such secrecy that even his chief spokeswoman was unaware of it, U.N. officials in New York said.
It came against the backdrop of yet more violence.
Three U.S. soldiers were reported killed and rival Shi’ite gunmen clashed in Basra, Iraq’s second city whose oil fields are the source of most of the country’s wealth.
U.S. forces also announced the capture of a top aide to radical anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr over the killing of five American soldiers in the holy city of Kerbala in January.
Ban and Maliki discussed a five-year reconstruction plan for Iraq that the secretary general launched last week as a “tool for unlocking Iraq’s own potential”.
The plan outlines targets for Iraq to hit during the next five years, including annual economic goals. It includes a list of legislation the government hopes to pass by the end of 2007.
Officials in Washington say a political solution must be found to the sectarian violence devastating Iraq and that a major U.S.-backed security crackdown in Baghdad is designed only to give Maliki’s government a breathing space.
Ban urged the government to launch an all-inclusive political process to reconcile the country’s warring sects and for its neighbors to “constructively engage” Iraq.
Along with the pressing threat of Sunni insurgents in their western Anbar bastion, where U.S. forces reported two soldiers were killed on Wednesday, Maliki’s government must deal with tensions between rival Shi’ite groups in southern Iraq.
On Thursday, gunmen loyal to Sadr clashed with members of the small but powerful Fadhila party outside the Fadhila headquarters in central Basra, prompting Iraqi security forces to order an immediate curfew.
A day after releasing Sadr aide Ahmed Shibani from more than two years in custody, the U.S. military announced the capture of another Sadr aide, Qais Khazaali, and several others over the killing of five U.S. soldiers in Kerbala in January.
Four U.S. soldiers were abducted from an Iraqi government compound during an assault by guerrillas posing as Americans in Kerbala on January 20. In all, five soldiers were killed in what the U.S. military called a sophisticated, well-rehearsed attack.
Additional reporting by Ross Colvin and Aseel Kami in Baghdad and Evelyn Leopold in New York