Maliki says Iraq secure for expanded UN role

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UNITED NATIONS, Sep 23 (Reuters) Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki met ministers from world powers and neighboring countries after telling the UN Secretary General he could guarantee security for a broader UN role in Iraq.

Ministers from Iraq, its neighbors and world powers met at UN headquarters, with Washington expected to press for implementation of a Security Council resolution passed last month on raising the role of the world body in Iraq.

The meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly brought US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice together with her Iranian counterpart, Manouchehr Mottaki, at a time of tension over Iran's nuclear ambitions. Washington also accuses Iran of backing militants in Iraq.

At US and British urging, the Security Council last month voted to assign the United Nations an expanded political role in Iraq, including promoting reconciliation between rival factions and dialogue with neighboring countries.

''The security situation has improved a lot in Baghdad,'' Maliki told reporters after meeting earlier with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. ''We are going to be able to provide security to the U.N.

in a way that will allow it to perform its role in an effective manner,'' he said.

Many UN officials are deeply concerned about sending more staff to Iraq, remembering a bomb that destroyed its office in Baghdad in August 2003 and killed 22 people, including mission chief Sergio Vieira de Mello.

The UN Staff Union wants Ban not to deploy more people in Iraq and withdraw those there now.

Yesterday's meeting, co-chaired by Maliki and Ban, included members of the Security Council, Iraq's neighbors, members of the Group of Eight leading industrial nations and representatives of regional and international organizations.

''Secretary Rice will urge Iraq's international partners to follow through on their pledges on financial and debt relief to Iraq,'' said Kristen Silverberg, US assistant secretary for International Organization Affairs.

BUSH UNDER PRESSURE US President George W Bush boosted American troop levels this year to try to stabilize Baghdad and create a climate for political reconciliation between Iraq's Shi'ite and Sunni populations. But the Iraqi government has failed to meet several benchmarks for political reconciliation.

Bush recently backed a recommendation by the US commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, to withdraw 20,000 troops by next July from 169,000 now in Iraq.

US and British officials deny their aim is to unload Iraq's political problems on the United Nations, then pull forces out. But they want the UN to take a shot at peacemaking, especially in recruiting help from neighboring nations.

Ban has already initiated a compact for Iraq that sets benchmarks for Baghdad in exchange for debt forgiveness.

Previous multilateral meetings on Iraq have provided rare opportunities for US officials to meet representatives of Iran and Syria, nations Washington accuses of meddling in Iraq by supporting militant groups.

In May, Rice exchanged greetings with Mottaki in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, during a conference on debt relief and other measures to support Baghdad. yesterday's meeting will address whether countries have met pledges made then.

Maliki said there was no direct meeting scheduled between Rice and Mottaki in New York but ''if circumstances allowed, we will work to make this meeting happen.'' Western diplomats acknowledge Shi'ite Muslim Iran is an influential force in Iraq, both as a neighbor and because of its links with elements in the Shi'ite-led Iraqi government.

REUTERS AK PM0437

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