Baghdad pushes for wider UN role in Iraq

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United Nations, Sep 23: Iraq urged regional and world powers to back an expanded UN role in Iraq but UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said there was more to be done on security before he could increase UN staff.

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

The meeting brought US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice together with her Iranian counterpart, Manouchehr Mottaki, at a time of tension over Iran's nuclear ambitions but they did not address each other. Washington also accuses Iran of backing militants in Iraq.

Ban told the meeting regional cooperation was vital to reinforce Iraqi efforts at reconciliation and ''avoid exacerbating tensions.'' He said it was the duty and responsibility of the United Nations to help and he proposed setting up a small support office in Baghdad and possibly sending staff to the cities of Basra and Arbil in the future.

But when he was asked at a news conference whether security was sufficiently improved to actually commit more UN staff, Ban said: ''The security situation, politically, socially ...(is) unstable at this time.

''I would really hope that security will be ensured as soon as possible,'' he said. ''It's true that ... security has been improving, but I think much more has to be done.'' Many UN officials are deeply concerned about working in 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. Around 50 staff are currently in Baghdad, living and working in the fortified international Green Zone.

Maliki says problems 'small'

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.

Maliki said his government was making progress toward national reconciliation and played down defections by Sunni Arab political parties from his government. ''When we talk of improvement, this doesn't mean that we don't have some problems but these problems are very small,'' he said.

''We are going to be able to provide security to the UN in a way that will allow it to perform its role in an effective manner,'' Maliki told reporters earlier after meeting Ban.

He pointed to an alliance of Sunni Arab tribes to fight al Qaeda in the western province of Anbar as evidence of success. ''Of course there are still pockets of tension, still pockets of terrorist militias who are working in the shadows,'' he said.

Rice described the talks as an ''excellent meeting,'' saying there was an understanding that ''it's the international community's responsibility to help.'' ''The security situation in Iraq is difficult but improving and certainly the security of UN personnel will be a very high priority for all of the forces there,'' she told reporters.

Yesterday meeting 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.

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 his commander in Iraq to withdraw 20,000 troops by next July from 169,000 now.

The meeting was a rare occasion for Rice to sit in the same room as officials from Iran, but a U.S. official said there was no direct contact between Rice and Mottaki.

Diplomats said Mottaki had called on U.S. authorities to release several Iranians detained in Iraq who Tehran says are diplomats but who Washington says were helping insurgents.


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