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Rocket hits near UN chief during visit

Before attack, Iraqi leader cited progress

Students marched past Iraqi soldiers in Baghdad yesterday as they protested against US military operations in the area. (Asaad Mouhsin/Associated Press)

BAGHDAD -- A rocket exploded 50 yards from the UN secretary general during a news conference yesterday in Baghdad's Green Zone, causing him to cringe and duck just minutes after Iraq's prime minister said the visit showed the city was "on the road to stability."

The US military, meanwhile, reported a major breakthrough in the campaign against rogue Shi'ite militants, saying it captured two brothers responsible for a sophisticated sneak attack that killed five American soldiers in January.

The Katyusha rocket that hit near Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was fired from a mainly Shi'ite area on the east bank of the Tigris River, not far from the Associated Press office. The heavily guarded Green Zone on the opposite bank is home to the US Embassy, Iraq's government, and the parliament.

Ban's unannounced stop in the Iraqi capital was the first visit by a UN secretary general since Kofi Annan, his predecessor, came to Baghdad in November 2005. The UN Security Council issued a statement strongly condemning the rocket firing as an "abhorrent terrorist attack."

The UN presence in Iraq has been much smaller than planned since militants bombed the organization's Baghdad headquarters on Aug. 19, 2003, and killed 22 people, including the top UN envoy, Sergio Vieira de Mello.

That was one of the first major attacks as Sunni Arab insurgents began rallying against American forces and other foreign troops after the US-led invasion. Foreign UN staff withdrew from Iraq in October 2003 after a second assault on its offices and other attacks on humanitarian workers. A small staff has gradually been allowed to return since August 2004.

Iraq's Shi'ite-dominated government has been quietly pushing for a greater UN role and was banking on decreased violence in the capital to show that it was returning to normal six weeks into a joint security crackdown with American forces.

"We consider it a positive message to [the] world in which you confirm that Baghdad has returned to playing host to important world figures because it has made huge strides on the road toward stability," Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told Ban moments before the rocket attack.

Ban's presence was broadcast after he arrived, but the trip had been kept so secret even his press spokeswoman didn't know he was in Iraq. His public schedule had called for Ban to leave New York yesterday for a trip to Egypt, Israel, and an African Union summit in Saudi Arabia.

The US military announced three Americans died in combat Wednesday -- an Army soldier slain in Baghdad and another soldier and a Marine killed in Anbar Province. At least 44 Iraqis were killed or found dead yesterday, including 25 bodies dumped in the capital, all showing signs of torture, police said.

In the campaign against Shi'ite extremists, the US military said it captured two brothers who were "directly connected" to the Jan. 20 sneak attack that killed five American soldiers guarding the provincial headquarters in Karbala, a city 50 miles south of Baghdad.

Qais al-Khazaali, his brother Laith al-Khazaali, and several other members of their network were rounded up over the past three days, the military said.

Gunmen speaking English, wearing US military uniforms, and carrying American weapons killed one American soldier during that attack, then carried off four captured soldiers and later shot them to death about 25 miles from Karbala.

An initial statement by the US military on the day of the raid said five soldiers were killed while "repelling" the attack on the compound in Karbala.

But after a Jan. 26 report by the Associated Press, the military reversed itself and confirmed that four of the guards had been abducted before being slain in a neighboring province.

The brazen assault was conducted by nine to 12 gunmen posing as a US security team, the military confirmed. The attackers traveled in black GMC Suburbans -- the type of sport utility vehicle used by US government convoys.

The arrest announcement occurred a day after the Associated Press reported that two senior commanders from the Mahdi Army militia had identified one of the brothers, Qais al-Khazaali, as leader of up to 3,000 fighters who defected from the group. They said the defectors were now financed directly by Iran and no longer loyal to the militia's leader, firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

Khazaali, a Shi'ite cleric in his early 30s, was a close Sadr aide in 2003 and 2004. He was Sadr's chief spokesman for most of 2004 but had not been seen in public since late that year.