U.N. chief Kofi Annan called Saturday for national reconciliation in Iraq during a surprise visit, arriving just as a car bomb exploded near a street market in a Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad and killed eight weekend shoppers.
It was Annan’s first trip to Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and the third by a high-level international official in as many days. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Friday and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw the day before.
All three encouraged disaffected Sunni Arabs, who form the core of the insurgency, to participate in next month’s parliamentary elections.
The U.N. leader also endorsed Arab League efforts to organize a conference bringing together Iraq’s varied groups to heal the nation’s divisions.
“This political transition process is extremely important,” Annan said at U.N. offices. “It must be a process that is inclusive, transparent and takes into account concerns of all groups.”
Shiites rule out Saddam loyalists
However, the leader of the biggest Shiite party, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, told Annan he was not interested in a conference that included Saddam loyalists, members of the former regime and Sunni religious fanatics believed responsible for suicide attacks against civilians.
That stance, which has been enunciated by other Iraqi Shiite officials, would appear to rule out participation by most of those fighting the U.S.-led coalition and its Iraqi allies.
For his part, Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, also a Shiite, said he told Annan that Iraqi authorities want U.N. help in the Dec. 15 election, promoting democracy and in “improving the performance of Iraqi security forces” to fight Sunni insurgents.
Iraq’s Shiites and Kurds have been suspicious of the Arab League, fearing it would favor the Sunni Arabs. Most Arab countries are majority Sunni, although Shiites form about 60 percent of Iraq’s estimated 27 million people.
Annan referred to the need to curb ongoing violence — both in Iraq and neighboring Jordan, where suicide bombings Wednesday killed at least 57 people in three hotels in the capital of Amman. The al-Qaida in Iraq terrorist group, which has carried out scores of attacks in Iraq, claimed responsibility for the Jordan bombings.
“Even those who are at a distance feel the pain and the misery that is being inflicted on families and innocent civilians,” Annan said. “This behavior, this terrorism, this brutal behavior is absolutely unacceptable.”
U.N. operations in Iraq were scaled down sharply after a truck bomber attacked the world body’s headquarters at the Canal Hotel on Aug. 19, 2003. The attack killed 23 people, including the top U.N. envoy to Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello.
Car blast kills 8
As Annan arrived in the capital, a car rigged with explosives detonated in the New Baghdad neighborhood as crowds shopped there. The eight dead included a woman and her 8-year-old daughter, police Lt. Col. Hassan Chaloub said. The explosion triggered a large fire that destroyed dozens of stalls in the market.
Meanwhile, a Web site operated outside the country by Baath Party officials announced the death of Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, the No. 2 figure in the ousted regime and the highest-ranking official still at large. The posting appeared to confirm an e-mail Friday announcing al-Douri’s death.
Attacks such as the Saturday car bomb have sharpened tensions between majority Shiites and minority Sunni Arabs at a time when U.S. and other officials have been trying to promote national unity ahead of Dec. 15 elections.
Claims of political repression
Shiites and Kurds dominate the security forces, while most of the insurgents are Sunni Arabs — complicating efforts to promote unity while simultaneously maintaining enough security so the election can proceed.
For example, Maj. Gen. Mahdi Sabyh Ibrahim announced Saturday that 310 people had been arrested in Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, after a series of car bombings, ambushes and other acts of violence.
Two major Sunni Arab groups quickly condemned the arrests as acts of political repression.
“This act clearly indicates that (government officials) want to hinder the next elections and put obstacles in front of the Sunnis to prevent them from participating,” said the Iraqi Islamic Party, the country’s largest Sunni political organization.
The General Conference of the Iraqi People, led by top Sunni politician Adnan al-Dulaimi, demanded an end to the raids and called on international organizations “to take a firm stance against human rights violations.”
Another Sunni Muslim politician who claims to have contacts with insurgent groups said Saturday that some of its members will run next month, and he gave their demands and conditions to start peace talks with U.S. forces.
“The resistance should have an active role to help Iraq get out of its crisis,” former electricity minister Ayham al-Samarie said.
Minutes before al-Samarie spoke, a statement was distributed in his house that allegedly included the resistance’s conditions to start peace talks, including a halt to all military operations, the release of all detainees, the withdrawal of foreign troops from cities and setting a timetable for foreign troops to leave.
U.S. officials have rejected such conditions in the past.