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Baghdad Blast Rattles UN Chief
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An explosion rocked the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad on Thursday close to the building where Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and visiting UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon were holding a joint news conference.

According to some reporters who scrambled to the scene, a big crater scarred the earth crater less than 50 meters away from the conference building.

The conference's live broadcast on al-Jazeera TV caught Ban understandably taken aback and seemingly shocked by the blast as small chips of debris floating down from the ceiling.

An Interior Ministry source confirmed the blast had come from a mortar round that landed in the Green Zone, although casualties remain unconfirmed.

Without commenting on the blast, Ban recovered his composure quickly and fielded one further question before leaving the meeting. Ban said during the conference that his meeting with Maliki had been very good and pledged full UN support to the government.

The surprise visit by Ban came as more violence unfolded in Iraq. Three US soldiers were reported killed as rival Shi'ite gunmen clashed in Basra, Iraq's second city whose oil fields provide much of the country's wealth.

US forces also revealed the capture of a senior aide to radical anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr related to the killing of five American soldiers in the holy city of Kerbala last January.

Reconstruction plan

Ban's trip was the first to Iraq by a UN chief since his predecessor, Kofi Annan, visited in November 2005. The United Nations's Iraq operations have been severely curtailed following the withdrawal of its international staffers in October 2003 after its headquarters were attacked. The top UN envoy to Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, was among 22 people killed in the truck bombing in Baghdad in August 2003.

An Iraqi government source revealed that talks between Ban and Maliki would focus on the International Compact with Iraq that Ban unveiled last week. The Compact is a five-year reconstruction plan, touted by Ban as a "tool for unlocking Iraq's own potential".

The Compact, overseen by over 80 countries, lays out targets for Iraq to hit over the next five years, including annual economic goals. It further lists essential legislation the government should pass by the end of 2007. 

Contacts with insurgents

Officials in Washington are pushing for a political solution to the sectarian violence devastating Iraq, reiterating the newest US-backed security crackdown in Baghdad is only a temporary measure to give the Iraqi government room to operate.

Saad Yousif al-Muttalibi, International Affairs Director at the National Dialogue and Reconciliation Ministry, announced on Thursday that the government was involved in talks with several important Sunni insurgent groups that could lead to an alliance aimed at ousting al-Qaeda from Iraq.

"We've already established links and contacts with major insurgent groups," Muttalibi told the BBC in an interview.

The Iraqi government has previously maintained sporadic contacts with insurgent groups in the past but the precondition that US troops withdraw immediately has always capsized any attempt at negotiation.

(China Daily via agencies, Xinhua News Agency March 23, 2007)

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