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.
Also Saturday, conflicting Web site statements appeared about the reported death of Saddam Hussein's chief lieutenant, the man accused by the United States of playing a key role in organizing Iraq's insurgency. One Web site believed to be the voice of the banned Baath Party reported Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri was dead, but another said he was alive and apologized for the death report.
Saturday's trip to Iraq was Annan's first 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. A major Sunni Arab party called Saturday for an end to U.S. and Iraqi military operations in heavily Sunni Anbar province, saying they threaten Sunni participation in the Dec. 15 election.
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.
Annan said the political transition must be "inclusive, transparent and takes into account concerns of all groups."
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, echoed 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.
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."
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.
U.N. operations in Iraq were scaled down sharply after a truck bomber attacked the world body's Baghdad headquarters on Aug. 19, 2003. The attack killed 23 people, including the top U.N. envoy to Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello.
As Annan arrived, a car rigged with explosives detonated in the New Baghdad neighborhood as crowds shopped there, killing eight, police Lt. Col. Hassan Chaloub said.
Despite the ongoing violence, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani predicted that British troops could leave Iraq by the end of 2006.
"We don't want British forces forever in Iraq. Within one year — I think at the end of 2006 — Iraqi troops will be ready to replace British forces in the south," Talabani said in the interview with Jonathan Dimbleby for Independent Television, to be aired Sunday.
He said, however, that immediate withdrawal "would lead to a kind of civil war."
Meanwhile, a Web site operated outside the country by Baath Party officials announced the death of al-Douri, the No. 2 figure in the ousted regime.
"In the pure land of Iraq, the soul of comrade Izzat Ibrahim returned to God on Friday at dawn," said the Web site statement, which described al-Douri as the "field commander of the heroic resistance."
Abdul-Rahman Mohammed Ibrahim, nephew and son-in-law of al-Douri, said he had no independent confirmation of the death, but some people close to Saddam outside the country were treating it as accurate.
Later, however, a statement on a second Web site insisted al-Douri was alive and apologized "for publishing a statement announcing the death of brother Izzat al-Douri. May God extend his life."
There was no way to determine which version was correct.
U.S. officials believed al-Douri, one of Saddam's oldest and closest associates, played a key role in organizing resistance that erupted in 2003 against the U.S.-led coalition and was instrumental in forging links between remnants of the ousted regime and Islamic extremists.
Shiites and Kurds dominate the security forces, while most of the insurgents are Sunni Arabs.
Attacks such as the Saturday car bomb have consequently 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.
The country's biggest Sunni Arab political group, the Iraqi Islamic Party, called for an end to U.S. and Iraqi military operations in mostly Sunni Anbar province, saying they "could abort the political process" by discouraging Sunnis there from voting.
U.S. and Iraqi forces have launched an operation in Anbar to clear insurgents from strongholds near the Syrian border.
Elsewhere, 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.
"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.
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," said the former electricity minister Ayham al-Samarie.
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.