BAGHDAD, (AP) – U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was headed to Baghdad on Thursday for talks with Iraq’s prime minister just as his government disclosed that it has been indirectly talking to Sunni insurgent groups over the past three months to persuade them to lay down their arms.
Ban will be in Baghdad for only one day of meetings with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose forces are working with the U.S. military in a major operation to curb violence in the Iraqi capital and the surrounding territory, U.N. officials said.
The U.N. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information, would give no other details about the visit.
The top U.N. official was last in Baghdad when Ban’s predecessor, Kofi Annan, visited the capital in November 2005.
Meanwhile, Saad Yousif al-Muttalibi of the Ministry of National Dialogue and Reconciliation said talks with Sunni insurgent groups were initiated at the request of the insurgents and have been taking place inside and outside Iraq over the past three months.
He refused to identify the groups, but said they did not include al-Qaeda in Iraq or Saddam Hussein loyalists. Members of the former president’s outlawed Baath party took part, he added.
Speaking to The Associated Press in a telephone interview Thursday, al-Muttalibi said the negotiations were deadlocked over the insurgent groups’ insistence that they would lay down their arms only when a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S.-led coalition troops in Iraq is announced.
The government’s response was that such a move could only be taken when security is restored.
Future rounds of negotiations are planned, he said, but did not elaborate.
Al-Muttalibi’s comments came one day after he expressed optimism in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp. that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government was making progress in talks with insurgent groups, predicting some factions might be close to laying down their arms.
“One of the aims is to join with them in the fight against al-Qaeda (in Iraq),” he told the BBC.
Reports have periodically surfaced in the past three years of talks between Iraqi and U.S. authorities and representatives of Sunni insurgent groups, but details of the contents of these negotiations and whether they made any progress always have been sketchy.
Groups said to have taken part in such talks often denied their participation in statements posted on the Internet.
Also Thursday, clashes erupted in the southern city of Basra between militiamen loyal to a radical anti-U.S. cleric and guards outside the headquarters of the rival Shiite Fadhila party, police said.
The building caught fire and the guards fled, they said. There were no casualties.
In the volatile city of Baqouba, located northeast of Baghdad, the bullet-ridden body of a kidnapped local official was found dumped on a city street Thursday, one day after masked gunmen stormed her house and took her away handcuffed, police said.
Ilham Namik Shahin, 43, was a Shiite member of the Baqouba provincial council. Her brother, Najah Namik Shahin, said 10 gunmen stormed the family home Wednesday night, ordered everyone into the living room before they handcuffed his sister and left with her.
“It took just 10 minutes and we were really scared. We couldn’t talk,” said the brother.
Baqouba, located in Diyala province 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, has seen an upsurge in violence and sectarian killings in recent weeks, with Sunni insurgents loyal to al-Qaeda in Iraq stepping up attacks as violence appears to ebb in Baghdad since a security push began Feb. 14.
The clashes in Basra, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad, followed the arrest earlier Thursday of a Mahdi Army militiaman by policemen thought to be loyal to Fadhila.
The arrested militiaman worked for the city’s electricity company. His comrades retaliated by kidnapping a colleague of his known to be a Fadhila supporter, according to police.
The fate of the two men is not known.
Thursday’s clashes came days after British forces pulled out of their main base in the heart of Basra, Iraq’s second city. Capt. Katie Brown, a British military spokeswoman Basra, said she had no information on the fighting.
Clashes between rival Shiite groups in the mainly Shiite south of Iraq are not uncommon. They reflect the competition for power between major parties, including those in al-Maliki’s government.
The rivalry in the oil-rich region poses the most serious threat to the unity of Iraq’s majority Shiites.
In the latest episode of Shiite-Shiite violence, three mortar shells hit the headquarters of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI, Thursday in Kut, 100 miles southeast of Baghdad, police said.
They reported no casualties and did not say who might have been behind the attack.
In Dujailah, a town near Kut, about 2,000 angry mourners marched with the coffins of three Mahdi Army militiamen gunned down Wednesday by unknown assailants, witnesses reported.
The Mahdi Army is loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shiite cleric whose loyalists have 30 of parliament’s 275 seats and six Cabinet posts. His Mahdi Army has in the past clashed with gunmen loyal to SCIRI, the senior partner in al-Maliki’s governing coalition, and other Shiite groups.
Also in Basra, police said gunmen on a motorcycle fatally shot a postgraduate female student at Basra University outside her home Wednesday night. Like most killings that take place daily in Iraq, the motive for Tuhfa Jaafar al-Bachay’s murder is unknown.