UN Envoy Cites Progress in Iraq's Security, Economy

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Staffan de Mistura, top U.N. envoy in Iraq, returned to New York to brief the U.N. Security Council on military and political progress in Iraq on Monday. His report was more optimistic than some expected. De Mistura discusses his assessment and takes questions from callers.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're going to spend most of this hour talking about Senator Hillary Clinton. Thirty women reflect on her presidential candidacy in a new book.

But first, a progress report on Iraq. Yesterday, we spoke with three people recently back from Iraq and we had hoped to be able to talk with the United Nations top envoy in Baghdad, Steffan de Mistura. The schedules didn't work out yesterday, but Mr. de Mistura agreed to talk with us today.

Since September, he's been the head of the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq in the United Nations secretary general's special representative in Baghdad. He returned to New York to brief the U.N. Security Council on military and political progress in Iraq on Monday. And in his report, there was some optimism.

We invite you to join the conversation. If you'd like to talk with Steffan de Mistura about how he sees the situation in Iraq or the U.N.'s role in that country, give us a call, 800-989-8255. E-mail us - talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Steffan de Mistura joins us from the BBC's bureau at the United Nations. And Mr. de Mistura, nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. STEFFAN de MISTURA (United Nations Special Envoy to Iraq): Thank you. Good to be with you.

CONAN: And I understand that your initial report was to be, well, somewhat pessimistic, but then one thing happened in Baghdad that caused you to change your mind, at least a little bit.

Mr. DE MISTURA: You're totally right. We were being pessimistic and, frankly, impatient too, about the fact there was not an indication of a political dialogue, especially in order to bring back the Sunnis into a government of national unity. But on the 12th of January, there was a decision by the parliament to actually address the issue of deBaathification.

In other words, 30,000 people were being, in one way or the other, associated with the period of the Baath Party did most of them probably just do it like it happened in Eastern Europe during the Soviet Union, they were joining a party in order to get a job, but they are part of the middle class. And they could be reintegrated and should be reintegrated, not be penalized. Of course, the active(ph) criminals, it's a different thing.

That law has been addressing that point. And that will be a step in the right direction because the Sunnis are part of Iraq and need to be part of the solution of Iraq.

CONAN: And also, most of those people are Sunnis and this would help address another problem that's ongoing in Iraq: How much the Sunnis believe they're invested in the government?

Mr. DE MISTURA: Exactly. And that's what we need at the moment. This is a crucial year. There has been an improvement on the security, also because many Sunnis, the so-called awakening councils, instead of fighting the coalition forces or fighting the Shia, had been starting fighting al Qaeda. That's why if you saw the recent attacks are mostly from al-Qaida sources against those Sunnis who had been deciding to fight al-Qaida instead of fighting Shia population in Iraq or the militias or fighting against the coalition forces.

CONAN: One of the factors of - well, the Sunni boycott of election is that they tend to be underrepresented in provincial assemblies. In Davos, at the World Economic Forum, Iraq's deputy prime minister said today that he favors rolling local elections, part of the Provincial Powers Act that has yet to be ratified by Iraq's parliament. But if they went ahead adopted that too, would that represent progress, do you think?

Mr. DE MISTURA: Absolutely. You see, it's the Catch 22. The Sunnis - the first instance thought - wrongly, frankly, and saying it because they themselves had admitted it - that by not participating to the elections, they will be delegitimizing those elections. In fact, they were excluded by the results of the elections and they discovered that in the provinces and elsewhere, someone else to cover even if they were the majority. Now, they got that message. They understand that the best way to play democracy is to play democracy. And therefore, they are now eager for elections. Provincial elections are important because it will empower and make people accountable about what to do about water, electricity, every day's life in every province.

CONAN: And I know you're ambit is political and military. But what can you tell us about economic progress in Iraq? If this is to succeed at all, people have to be able to find work and feed their families.

Mr. DE MISTURA: You're right. But Iraq, frankly, is a country - very unusual country. We are talking about 200 billions of barrels of oil reserves. We are talking about 29 million of people, many of them extremely were prepared -engineers, doctors - and capable to really rebuilding their own country. A country with two rivers and five thousand years of history. There is no reason that they should not be - once they stopped non-discussing among each other about issues such as oil sharing, about provincial elections, amnesty, inclusiveness - to actually be able to rebuild their country. And at the moment, economy is going better, but they need to translate that economy, which is going better. Also thanks to the oil prices into percolating services to every single Iraqi. They're asking like everybody else, like we are, for better services, a better quality of life. Then there will trust their own politicians.

CONAN: The United Nations reduced its presence in Iraq dramatically after the bombing there of the headquarters in 2003 when 22 employees died, including Sergio Vieira de Mello. And how much - how many U.N. people are there now? How big is the mission? What's its role?

Mr. DE MISTURA: First of all, Sergio was a very close friend of mine and I personally - when the secretary general gave me the honor to represent him in Baghdad, I accepted also because I think that the legacy of Sergio should be continued. He was representing the best goodwill that the international community and U.N. could have with a country who needs help.

So, we are back. We have been back for a while, but we are back with a stronger resolution, a stronger mandate. It's not the number which matters, you see, (unintelligible). The - what matters is the quality of the type of activities we are doing. We are more than 350 international, anyway, inside Iraq and we could increase that and we plan to increase. But what we need to increase is the impact we have on the activities in the country and also the interaction with Iraq. If that's what is our aim, that's what we are planning to do this forthcoming months.

CONAN: We're talking with Steffan de Mistura, the United Nations secretary general's special representative to Iraq. And let's see if we can get some listeners on the line. Again, if you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255. And this is Hussein(ph). Hussein with us from Lansing, Michigan.

HUSSEIN (Caller): Hello. Hi. Thank you very much for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead please.

HUSSEIN: I have a question for the U.N. officer and I'm wondering from those he had talked to during his visit. Is the average Iraqi feels better that Saddam is gone, or worse off that under the current government and occupation?

CONAN: Did you get a chance to hear that there, Mr. de Mistura?

Mr. DE MISTURA: Absolutely. And I'm saying that first of all, I'm not there on a visit, I'm there to stay. We are - I'm based in Baghdad and that's why I'm going back, because this is the time to be with Iraqis, not outside. I'm saying that - when you talk to Iraqis, the average Iraqis - and I do meet the many of them and I do speak some Arabic - they are complaining about the lack of security. And it's true during the time of Saddam Hussein, many of those, the thugs and gangsters, which have been roaming around the cities, were not allowed to be there. But they are also, all of them, complaining - frankly, no different between Sunnis, Shias, or Kurds - about the horror of the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. And they are also feeling that now the economy, in a way, the market economy that they're having is in a way giving them hope for the future. What they want is stability. And that is something that they have to build together.

CONAN: Thank you, Hussein.

HUSSEIN: Yeah, thank you very much for taking my call.

CONAN: Bye-bye. The only objections raised when you've made your briefing to the Security Council on Monday came from the United States ambassador, who objected to one part of your statement about the cooperation and the role of the countries surrounding Iraq. You said that they contributed significantly to the improvement of the situation there. And the United States representative said, wait a minute, we're not so sure about Syria, which still lets foreign fighters go through, and also about Iran.

Mr. DE MISTURA: Well, the United States ambassador, who I know well and respect a lot may have better information I have about security movements on the borders. I was referring to the political involvement of the neighbors. And Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Turkey are crucially important in the stabilization and improvement of the situation in Iraq. And we have been detecting, no question on that, willingness by the Iranians, the Syrians, but everybody else to actually engage or reengage constructively in Iraq, and we were actually identifying that as a positive trend.

CONAN: Let's get Michael(ph) on the line. Michael with us from Grand Rapids in Michigan.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hi there. I'm not a student of political science in Grand Rapids; I go to Aquinas College. And my question to you is - it's not necessarily about humanitarian issues but more politically. Has deep application hindered the political process as has been practiced the past few years or is - are we starting to implement more figures that were previously part of the Baathist Party?

CONAN: And he may be taking notes for his thesis so be careful, Mr. de Mistura.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DE MISTURA: And he should do that. I think it's an interesting thesis and we need those theses these days to be able to also read into the future. And the deBaathification issue was long overdue, because too many people were just are not allowed to be part of the solutions in Iraq simply because they were happened to be associated with the previous government. Look what happened in many other countries in the world after the end of the Cold War where in fact there was a very clear line drawn between those who are really bad guys and those who have been just participating out of necessity or opportunity for a - to a party in order to do their job.

Many of these people are part of the middle class. Many of them are, in fact, being crucially useful and can be crucially useful in the reconstruction of Iraq. In that sense, deBaathification Law is urgently needed and both urgently needed. And I think we should go forward on that because the government of unity in Iraq, including those Sunnis who want to be part of it is, together with the Shia and the Kurds, the solution for the future.

CONAN: Michael, thanks very much. Good luck with your piece.

MICHAEL: Sure. Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And finally, we just have about a minute with you left, Mr. de Mistura, but after all the mistakes, all the bloodshed, all the hatred, all the internecine warfare, do you think Iraq can make it?

Mr. DE MISTURA: Yes. For three reasons: The first one - forgive me if I use a personal judgment, but I'm an optimist otherwise I would not be working for the U.N. in war zones. The second reason is because I've been nine times in my life so far in Iraq and I've acquired a high level of respect for their capacity of rebuilding and starting again and rebuilding and starting again and again.

And the third one is that there has been too much blood, too much suffering and there is a fatigue among themselves - they are telling me that - that's been leading nowhere. After Samara, it was a tragedy. Four million people were actually made - between refugees and IDPs, and they all realize this is leading nowhere. But we need to help them. We need to help them to make sure that this year is well utilized in that direction.

CONAN: Steffan de Mistura, thank you very much for your time and good luck on your return to Baghdad.

Mr. DE MISTURA: Thank you.

CONAN: Steffan de Mistura, U.N. special representative to Iraq and head of the U.N. assistance mission there, with us from the bureau of the BBC at the United Nations.

Coming up, we'll explore the particular emotional dilemma that Hillary Clinton's candidacy poses for women.

It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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