Friday, February 06, 2009

Visiting UN chief praises Iraqi progress

By QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA, Associated Press Writer Friday, February 6, 2009 PST BAGHDAD, (AP) -- The U.N. secretary-general said Friday that provincial elections were an important step toward full democracy but told Iraqis they still have work to do before they can enjoy "genuine freedom and security and prosperity." Ban Ki-moon made his second visit to Iraq as United Nations chief a day after official preliminary results showed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's allies swept to victory in the vote for powerful local councils, an endorsement of his crackdown on extremism and violence. "I believe that you have come such a long way, but still you have to go a far way to say that you will fully be able to enjoy genuine freedom and security and prosperity," he said during a meeting in Baghdad with President Jalal Talabani. He also met with al-Maliki. U.N. representatives worked closely with the Iraqis in preparing for the balloting, in which voters chose provincial officials in 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces. Ban said the U.N. would continue to provide technical or political assistance as needed. "I'm very much encouraged by what you have achieved," he said. Ban also stopped in Afghanistan on Thursday and urged U.S. and NATO-led forces to prevent civilian casualties in their operations. Last Saturday's elections in Iraq were the first nationwide balloting since December 2005 and went off relatively peacefully. Al-Maliki's impressive showing in Baghdad and eight other provinces, which must be certified by international and Iraqi observers, places the prime minister in a strong position before parliamentary elections late this year and could bolster U.S. confidence that it can begin withdrawing more of its 140,000 troops. Ban's meeting with al-Maliki come under completely different circumstances than their last meeting in March 2007 when a nearby rocket attack forced him to duck behind a podium during a joint news conference in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone. Violence is down sharply since last year after a U.S.-Iraqi offensive broke the power of Shiite militias and after many Sunni gunmen abandoned the insurgency. U.S. military death tolls have fallen to a fraction of levels seen at the height of the war. The relatively violence-free elections won praise from Ban, President Barack Obama and others, though tensions have been running high in the former insurgent-stronghold of Anbar where a leading sheik, Ahmed Abu Risha, accused his rivals of rigging the election. A Shiite cleric loyal to anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr also told worshippers Friday that "fraud took place during the elections," railing against those who spent millions of dollars on their campaigns. "Let the people in Sadr City hear about this huge amount of money spent on publicity while they live without water or electricity," Sheik Muhannad al-Moussawi said during a sermon in Baghdad's main Shiite district. Worshippers burned American and Israeli flags in the streets after the prayer service. Other Shiite and Sunni preachers called for unity and urged the new provincial councils to work to provide much-needed basic services. "This country has suffered so much from wrong policies and from those who have made religion a cover for their acts," Sheik Ahmed Hassan al-Taha said during prayer services at Baghdad's main Sunni mosque. Ahmed al-Safi, an aide to the country's pre-eminent Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, warned those who won their elections not to make people regret voting for them. "If we are to serve the citizens, these relations must be good," he said. Meanwhile, Iraq's state minister of women's affairs, Nawal al-Samarraie, said Friday she submitted her resignation this week over what she calls a lack of support for the widows and other women facing great hardship in the wartorn country. She said she waiting for a response from the prime minister's office. Tens of thousands of women have been left widows by Iraq's violence. They have virtually no safety net and few job opportunities and usually depend on extended families.

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