U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan visited Iraq on Saturday for the first time since the U.S.-led invasion more than 21/2 years ago -- a war he had condemned as illegal -- and called for reconciliation among political factions vying for the country's leadership.
During his brief visit, Annan rushed between meetings with the leaders of the government elected in January, including Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, a Shiite Muslim, and Vice President Ghazi Yawar, a Sunni Muslim. Annan also met with former prime minister Ayad Allawi, now a member of parliament.
"The political transition must be a process that is inclusive and transparent and takes into account the concerns of all groups," Annan said about parliamentary elections set for next month, the Reuters news agency reported.
The Iraqi government has been pushing the United Nations to become more involved in the country, requesting humanitarian help and a peacekeeping force that could ultimately replace the U.S.-led troops viewed by many Iraqis as occupiers. The United Nations, which pulled out of Iraq in the months following the August 2003 bombing at its Baghdad headquarters, is slowly reestablishing its presence in the country. The attack killed 22 people, including the top U.N. envoy to Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello.
"Welcome to Baghdad," Yawar said, greeting Annan as the two settled into a palatial meeting room in the fortified Green Zone. "There is no one more welcome in Baghdad than the U.N. representative. You promised us you would come here, and you have fulfilled this promise."
Annan declined to speak with reporters after his 15-minute meeting with Yawar, a session that had been scheduled to last an hour. Annan left the country before sunset.
Yawar, fielding questions from behind a bank of microphones, said Annan had come to Baghdad to rally support for an Arab League conference organized to bring together Iraqi political participants in advance of the Dec. 15 elections.
"He promised to support the conference and the decisions made there," Yawar said. "We also discussed the ways to reactivate the U.N. role in Iraq through the political and economic support after the elections."
In a short news conference with Jafari earlier in the day, Annan said the United Nations was encouraging participation in the conference, "which aims at building a new future for the Iraqi people."
Annan's visit came a day after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made an unannounced trip to the country to push for participation in the elections by the Sunni Arab minority. Rice also expressed cautious support for the conference. "All parties who attend should recognize that they are participating with an elected Iraqi government," she said, adding, "The lead on this really ought to be the Iraqi government."
Hours after Annan arrived in Baghdad, a bomb exploded in a market in the New Baghdad neighborhood in an eastern part of the city, killing at least eight people, including a small girl, witnesses said.
Annan stopped in Amman, Jordan, on Friday to condemn the bombings of three hotels Wednesday that killed nearly 60 people. Some Iraqis expressed anger that Annan had visited Jordan before Iraq.
"He visited Amman just because 50 people were killed, while in Iraq hundreds die each day," said Abdullah Dulaimi, 36, who works in an electronics store. "After almost three years of suffering, he comes to Iraq. He came to say hello to the government and leave back to America."
Hassan Ali, 45, who was a brigadier general in the former army, also criticized the visit. "Kofi Annan's visit to Iraq means nothing for the Iraqis, but it means a lot to the Iraqi government and the American government. It will give them the political support and the political cover for whatever they are doing."
Meanwhile, unconfirmed reports continued to circulate that Izzat Ibrahim Douri, who was a top deputy to ousted president Saddam Hussein, had died Friday. But in his home town of Dour, there were no signs of mourning that traditionally would be common after such a death. Many of the town's residents are related to Douri.
Douri is considered the highest-ranking member of Hussein's inner circle still at large -- the king of clubs in the U.S.-issued card deck of wanted Iraqis -- and is believed to be an important strategist in the Iraqi insurgency. The United States has offered a $10 million reward for his confirmed death or information leading to his capture.
News that Douri had died was initially posted on an Arabic-language Web site based in Britain. The announcement described Douri as the "leader of the Iraqi resistance" but did not provide details on where or how he might have died. Douri reportedly has leukemia.
At least three erroneous reports of his capture have surfaced since U.S. forces toppled Hussein's government in April 2003. There have been several reports that he might be intentionally spreading false information about himself.
"What the satellite channels announced is untrue," said Hammad Khaylif Douri, 33, a former intelligence officer in Dour.
Safaa Douri, a former member of Hussein's elite Special Republican Guard and now a police officer in the new Iraqi force, also dismissed the reports, saying the news was untrue "because if it is really true, huge demonstrations would happen here." The town was quiet Saturday.
Safaa Douri invited a Post correspondent to meet with Izzat Douri's main assistant in the town on the condition that the correspondent be blindfolded on the way there. They arrived at a house, and the correspondent met a man who identified himself as Abdul Qadir Douri, who appeared to be in his fifties.
"Izzat Douri is alive," he said, reacting angrily to the question about Douri's possible death.
It was not possible to independently verify the accounts about Douri.
Special correspondents Bassam Sebti, Naseer Nouri and K.I. Ibrahim in Baghdad and Salih Saif Aldin in Dour contributed to this report.