UNITED NATIONS — In the most upbeat assessment by a U.N. official since America invaded Iraq, Secretary-General Ban's top envoy in Baghdad, Steffan de Mistura, told the Security Council yesterday that it "cannot ignore the recent improvements" in Iraq since last year's troop surge.
Mr. de Mistura, who arrived in Baghdad last fall, acknowledged that Iraqis and the coalition forces still face serious "challenges" in the near future, but in yesterday's periodic report to the council, he noted marked progress since last year and said the security situation has not only improved but that there have been "welcome steps towards national reconciliation and inclusive political dialogue," though "tentative and overdue."
U.N. assessments of the conditions in Iraq since the war began in 2003 have often been bleak and critical of the activities of the American-led international troop contingency, known as the Multi-National Force–Iraq.
A former secretary-general, Kofi Annan, famously called America's decision to unseat Saddam "illegal." But yesterday, Mr. de Mistura credited the surge of American troops for much of the success in Iraq.
Asked about the upbeat nature of his assessment and his departure from past U.N. practice, Mr. de Mistura, a 37-year veteran of the world organization, cited three reasons. "First, I am an optimist by nature," he told The New York Sun. "Second, there really are results on the ground, and third, I believe that only by saying that, you get even more results." The challenges facing Iraq, he told the council, are "largely unaltered," given the "complex, inextricably linked," and "quite daunting" issues facing the country. However, he added, "We cannot ignore the recent improvements both in the security and political situation in Iraq. The notable decline in hostile activities can be credited to the cumulative effect of increased deployment of MNF–I troops," as well as to the cease-fire declared by the Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr, and to "increased cooperation with neighbors on security-related issues."
That last point, which later was made even clearer when Mr. de Mistura talked in a briefing with reporters about the cooperation that Iraq gets from its "immediate" neighbors, was the only issue of his presentation that was disputed by America's U.N. ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad. Speaking on behalf of the coalition, Mr. Khalilzad expressed Washington's assessment about the negative role played by two of Iraq's immediate neighbors, Iran and Syria.
The "Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps continues to train, equip, and fund Shia extremists despite reported assurances to Prime Minister al-Maliki that Iran will cease lethal aid," Mr. Khalilzad — who served as the American ambassador to Iraq between 2005 and 2007 — told the council. "Foreign terrorists and suicide bombers still enter Iraq through Syria," he added. "Syria must do more to stem these flows."
Mr. de Mistura later told reporters that Mr. Khalilzad "has more access to more information than I have." Both men agreed that the United Nations has played a much more significant role since the council has decided to increase the world body's presence there. Specifically, they cited the U.N.'s role in helping to mediate disputes over access to natural resources in Iraq's northern regions, including the oil-rich area of Kirkuk, where some tentative solutions have been reached recently.
Since the council passed its Resolution 1770 last august, the United Nations has increased the number of its representatives in Baghdad and Erbil to 89 international staffers from what was just below 50. The General Assembly recently approved the budget for a new headquarters building, known to many as "the bunker."
In addition to the staffers, there are 256 security officers assigned to protect the U.N. mission in Iraq, including 162 Fijian troops who don the signature U.N. blue helmets.