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IRAQ: Interview with the UN Special Representative for Iraq, Ashraf Qazi

BAGHDAD, 24 March 2005 (IRIN) - The UN Special Representative for Iraq, Ashraf Qazi, a former Pakistani diplomat, is busy working on the political process by bringing together parties following January’s historic election.

He is also trying to ensure that there is full participation from all sections of society as the newly elected national assembly prepares to construct a new constitution.

At his villa inside the heavily fortified green zone in the capital Baghdad, Qazi told IRIN about the UN's priorities, its work in the country and plans to bring staff back.

QUESTION: What is the UN's priority in Iraq today?

ANSWER: The UN has the responsibility in Iraq to assist, advise and respect the political transitional process in the country, which we helped in the election process that took place in January. [To give] help, if invited, to assist the writing of the new constitution and later on, at the end of this year, carry out a new election under the newly approved constitution.

All this is on the political side. On the socio-economic side, reconstruction and humanitarian issues are the priorities. Help in building capacity in the ministries to bring basic services to the people, restoring the social infrastructure that over the last two decades has been severely damaged, such as the shortage of power, water purification, sewage and others, not forgetting respect for human rights in the country and encouraging the government to supply the population with this kind of information.

Q: What are the reconstruction priorities?

A: The infrastructure of the country has collapsed. Reconstruction of education and health are the most important issues. Water, sewage and power supplies are important issues that also have to be taken care of. Food supplies are included in projects. We have established offices in Basra [in the south] as well as Arbil [in the north], getting coverage of both sides of the country and with that, providing more help to the Iraqi people in the reconstruction process.

Q: How will the offices in Basra and Arbil operate under the current security situation?

A: We studied the security situation in Arbil and Basra before we opened our offices in those areas. The security there is better than in other parts of Iraq and for this reason we have established those offices and started to make up our personnel. Our presence there will enable us to cover those areas and make us more visible to the population although we have been very active there. We will now be very active with the local residents and the local NGOs. Our visibility as the UN has not yet been so clear to the local population.

Q: Are there any plans for reopening the old office in Baghdad?

A: Yes, so far we have been using it as a store house. The place will be reopening but it all depends on the security situation in the country. Due to the last tragedy on the UN in 2003 [when 23 people were killed by a bomb attack on the UN headquarters in Baghdad], we had to relocate to inside the international green zone as well as many Iraqi government offices. As the security situation eases, we will have the chance to look at this possibility.

Q: Has the UN's image been tarnished in Iraq due to its absence? How will you change this image?

A: I don’t think our image is bad compared with any other institution; the UN has the best image in Iraq. We were forced to take all of our international staff out of Iraq due to the horrible tragedy in 2003 and I don’t think that there is any misunderstanding about why we left the country at that time. It took a short time for us to come back and we had to keep in mind the security situation to increase our strength here and I think it’s a rational position that has been understood by the population. As well as that, we have been increasing our personnel despite the security situation in Iraq.

We deserve a degree of credit for doing all this work under the poor security situation and we are proud to be in Iraq. We will show the Iraqi people that we are by their side. But after the tragedy of 2003, it was very understandable for the UN to relocate to neighbouring countries, but we kept our services running in Iraq. Iraqis will find that the UN has been working consistently even under the most difficult circumstances.

Q: Is the UN working in partnership with any international NGO in the country? If so, how is this working?

A: Most of the international NGOs have withdrawn from the country due to the security situation and for this reason we have been working much more with local NGOs.

But we have a policy of always working with international NGOs like the [International Committee of the] Red Cross and we will still be offering assistance to support Iraqi people.

As the security situation improves and they start to come back to the country for sure they will be very valuable partners for us in projects that will provide services for Iraqis. We also have to think about the security situation, since the UN has been targeted before.

Q: How do you consider the results of the last election in the country? Do you believe that it will bring change?

A: It's very important to talk about this political transition in Iraq. The election process took place under a difficult security environment [in order] to take place on time.

I can say that it was very healthy except in some areas of Iraq where it wasn't very healthy and it’s a problem that needs to be addressed under this political transition process. We also need to compliment the independent electoral commission for conducting the elections very carefully and competently.

I think they made a difference, as can be seen under the latest discussions for the positions inside the new Iraqi assembly. The elections could not have been perfect, but certainly it can be seen as a watershed development in Iraq's political history as well as the coming constitution.

Q: There have been many statements from the UN calling for the Sunni population to unite. How are you going to bring the Sunni parties together with the Shi'ites following their boycott of the elections?

A: I have been meeting with people from all groups in Iraq and our attendance is to ensure the full participation and inclusiveness in all aspects of the political process and if those groups for one reason or another didn’t participate in the elections they should now be encouraged to participate in the government and in the constitution making process. We have been meeting and discussing demands and policies with them. We will encourage this participation that is very important for the new political process in Iraq. The government should take part giving the opportunity for every group to take part in the new process.

Q: Now most of the work of the UN is being done outside the country. When is it likely to return?

A: Our offices in Kuwait and Jordan have been doing great work, but the core of the operation is located here in Baghdad. As the security situation improves, the number of staff in Iraq will go up and hopefully over a period of time we will be able to transfer all the work outside Iraq into Iraq. But this will require political progress and primary security because we have a primary obligation to guarantee minimum safety to our personnel. We will be proud to bring all the UNAMI [United nations Assistance Mission for Iraq] set-up back to Iraq as the security improves.

Q: As the representative of the UN in the country, have you faced any threats?

A: We live under constant risk here. We know under what kind of security we came to Baghdad and we are very confident that Iraqis understand that we are here to help them. Our image is good here and we should be more involved with the people but they understand our situation because the Iraqis also live under this bad security situation. I don’t think we have received any direct threat up to now in Iraq.

Q: How do you see Iraq's future?

A: I'm very optimistic because you can see that the people don’t want to lose this opportunity to change many years of suffering in their country and they want to get out of that. I can say that they are bound to succeed.

Theme (s): Conflict, Early Warning, Economy, Governance, Human Rights, Refugees/IDPs,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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