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High-level talks discuss greater UN role in Iraq

UNITED NATIONS (AFP) - A high-level meeting on Iraq ended here Saturday with support for a bigger UN role in the war-scarred country but acknowledgment that this would require greater improvement in the security situation.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon, who co-chaired the meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, outlined plans for a modest hike in the world body's presence but cautioned that although security has been improving in Iraq, "much more needs to be done."

"There was an emphasis by many speakers on the key UN role in helping to promote national reconciliation," Ban said during a joint press conference with Maliki.

"There was clear agreement that the international community cannot turn away from or ignore Iraq," he added.

The world body has been under strong pressure from Washington to adopt a higher profile in Iraq, despite continuing violence more than four years after US-led troops invaded the country and ousted the regime of the late Saddam Hussein.

On Friday, US Assistant Secretary of State for international organization affairs Kristen Silverberg said Washington "wants to see more UN officials on the ground in Baghdad".

But while Ban is committed to increasing the world body's role in Iraq, he faces resistance from his staff, many of whom are still traumatized by the August 19, 2003 truck bombing of the Baghdad UN mission, which killed 22 people including special envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello.

"I think that 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, the multinational forces," US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters after the meeting.

She said that there was "a long discussion about the new (Security Council) resolution 1770."

Resolution 1770 adopted last month extended the mandate of the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) by one year and urged it to "advise, support and assist" the Iraqi government on a wide range of issues.

The UN was assigned the task of helping Baghdad promote national reconciliation and dialogue with its neighbors on issues of border security, humanitarian aid and the return of the estimated 4.5 million Iraqi refugees.

Currently there are 95 UN international staffers in the country -- 65 in Baghdad and 30 in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Arbil -- in addition to several hundred international security personnel.

Some 235 UN-affiliated staffers also work out of Jordan and Kuwait.

"I am considering enhancing the present UN team in Iraq," Ban said. "We have staff in Baghdad, we may increase staff in Arbil (Iraq's Kurdish capital), and we will possibly establish an office in Basra."

He also offered UN help in improving Baghdad's cooperation with its neighbors, proposing to set up a "small Baghdad-based 'support office' for regional dialogue" following further consultations among Iraq and its neighbors at the end of October.

Ban also stressed that the plight of some 4.5 million Iraqi refugees "remains a matter of serious concern."

Maliki meanwhile claimed that the security situation in his country "has improved" but stressed the need for national reconciliation which he said "would require a lot of time."

He said that 2007 was the "year of security" in Iraq and next year would be "the year of the economy."

Another participant, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, suggested that UN reconstruction efforts in Iraq should focus first on the north of the country where security conditions are better.

"Such initiatives would gradually spread to the rest of the country," he told the meeting, according to a transcript released afterwards.

The meeting brought together 20 countries, plus international bodies such as the European Union and the Arab League.

High-level talks discuss greater UN role in Iraq -  Source

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