(CBS/AP) Vice President Dick Cheney landed in Baghdad Wednesday morning for an unannounced visit to push Iraq's warring political and religious factions to seek common ground — and a way to end the sectarian violence devastating the country's civilian population.
Cheney and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki acknowledged problems in the pace of reducing violence in Iraq on Wednesday, but both pledged their governments would continue working together toward a solution.
"The meeting with the vice president paved a foundation for practical steps to support our efforts working on both the security front as well as the domestic political issues," said al-Maliki as he and Cheney made brief statements to reporters.
Al-Maliki is coming under increasing pressure from Washington to demonstrate progress in easing sectarian violence, and Cheney's unannounced visit to Iraq was depicted by U.S. officials as an attempt to press al-Maliki and other Iraqi leaders to do more to achieve reconciliation among factions.
"We talked about a way ahead in terms of our mutual interests," Cheney said.
News of Cheney's arrival came as a suicide truck bomb exploded at the Interior Ministry in the Kurdish city of Irbil, killing at least 14 people and wounding 80, officials said. CBS News reporter Pete Gow reports Iraqi Kurdistan is a largely autonomous region, ususally spared the violence that is so prevalent in other areas.
Kurdish television showed footage of a building that had been almost completely destroyed. Rubble lay in piles and long metal beams were twisted. Rescue workers reached into the wreckage to pull out one of the victims of the blast.
Hamza Ahmed, a spokesman for the Irbil governor's office, said the blast targeted the Interior Ministry. He said that the casualties included police and civilians.
Cheney sought to encourage reconciliation among Iraq's rival factions. Gow says the vice president's message is expected to emphasize the fact that the current U.S. military buildup alone is not going to end the conflict.
Cheney made Iraq the first stop of a weeklong trip to the Middle East aimed at redoubling efforts to end divisive infighting among Iraq's ethnic factions.
Earlier, the vice president got a firsthand briefing on conditions from Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and the new U.S. ambassador here, Ryan Crocker.
Cheney was to meet later with Iraq's Kurdish president and its Sunni and Shiite vice presidents.
Aides said Cheney's mission was both to get a sense of the situation on the ground in Iraq and to deliver a message that more work is needed on the political front to overcome divisions and delays.
That included a renewed request that the Iraqi parliament not take a two-month vacation as many lawmakers here have urged.
Cocker told reporters traveling with Cheney that urging the parliament to stay in session through these difficult times was clearly on the vice president's agenda.
"For the Iraqi parliament to take a two-month vacation in the middle of summer is impossible to understand," said Crocker, who traveled with Cheney from Washington.
Windows were blown out down the street and wreckage was scattered nearly 100 yards away by the blast in Irbil, 215 miles north of Baghdad. (At left, destroyed vehicle seen at blast site) The city is the capital of the Iraq's Kurdistan region, which has been relatively calm, despite the violence in much of the rest of Iraq.
Iraqi officials said 14 people were killed and 80 were wounded, including five who were in serious condition. The death toll had earlier been reported as 19, but officials said later that some bodies had been double-counted.
Hamza Ahmed, a spokesman for the Irbil governor's office, said the dead and wounded included police and civilians.
The Interior Ministry, the apparent target of the blast, is next to the parliament for the Kurdish Autonomous region of northern Iraq.
Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman blamed the attack on Ansar al-Sunnah, a Sunni Arab insurgent group, and Ansar al-Islam, a mostly Kurdish militant group with ties to al Qaeda in Iraq. Ansar al-Islam has been blamed for a number of attacks, including attempts to assassinate Kurdish officials.
Othman said authorities learned that insurgents were planning a large attack a week ago when police arrested a militant cell in the town of Sulamaniya.
"During questioning they confessed that were getting training lessons in a neighboring country and that was Iran," he said.
The last major attack in Irbil took place Feb. 1, 2004 when twin suicide bombers killed 109 people in two Kurdish party offices. Ansar al-Sunnah claimed responsibility for that attack.
"Kurdistan is a safe region and this will have its affect on trade, and companies will fear coming to this region," Othman said.