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U.N. representatives make initial foray into Al Anbar Province

22 Feb 2006 | Gunnery Sgt. Mark Oliva

A delegation from the United Nations visited officials from two cities in the Al Anbar Province recently, marking the first time the international body ventured to this region since Coalition forces invaded in 2003.

Ahraf Jahnagir Qazi, the Special Representative to the Secretary General Kofi Annan led a small team on a “listening” tour to Ramadi and Fallujah.  The delegation, titled the United Nations Assistance Mission to Iraq, met with provincial leaders in Ramadi and city leaders in Fallujah.

Marines from Regimental Combat Team 8 escorted the delegation in Fallujah.

“This trip was a ‘getting to know’ tour,” Qazi said.  “We were largely in listening mode.  The issues the Iraqis emphasized were security, compensation and reconstruction.”

Steven Sequeira, Special Assistant to Qazi, said the visit to Al Anbar was “long overdue.”

United Nations officials were reluctant to visit Sunnis until now due to concerns surrounding their own safety. That’s changed, though.  Improving capabilities of the Iraqi Security Forces and progress made by Marines in the region allowed the international team to begin the groundwork for bringing increased attention to the needs of the local citizens.

Sequeira said that several additional factors delayed the visit to nearly three years after Saddam Hussein’s regime was toppled.  U.N. representatives are limited to a staff of just 90 and until recently, were concentrating their efforts on monitoring elections.  Now that the elections passed and results were verified, efforts to address the citizens’ needs are taking on greater importance.

Qazi and several of his team members met with Mayor Dhari Abdul Hady Irsan Al-Zobaie, Fallujah’s mayor, Qassam Mashkoor Al-Issaawi, deputy councilman, and Iraqi Brig. Gen. Salah Al Ani, Fallujah police chief, in a two-and-a-half hour closed-door session.  The meeting was held without Marines or U.S. officials in attendance to allow Iraqis to speak freely of their concerns.  The United Nations is considered to be more neutral than U.S. forces in the area.

Neutrality might just be what the largely Sunni population of Al Anbar is seeking.  Sunni Arabs, a minority among Iraqi Shiites and Kurds, enjoyed unparalleled political power under Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party.  Recent elections put Shiites as the majority political power in Iraq and Sunnis are concerned they won’t have a voice in their future.  The United Nations role offers an avenue outside that of U.S. forces in the region to speak to their concerns.

“This was not an American-run meeting, explained John Kael Weston, a U.S. State Department political advisor who has been based in Fallujah since July 2004.  “The U.N. has a different and valued perspective.  It is a body that represent the international community.  Today’s session sent a key signal to the people here.  Fallujans saw that the top U.N. official was willing to venture out of the Green Zone and listen to them.  Sunni Arabs likely feel more comfortable having certain discussions with the U.N. than with us in the Coalition.  We understand and welcome it.”

Marines shouldn’t expect to see blue-helmeted troops taking to the streets anytime soon, however.

Both U.S. and U.N. officials said the visit was largely symbolic.  Qazi didn’t bring anything to the table to immediately offer to Iraqis in Al Anbar, but the move was considered a step in the right direction.

Qazi said the United Nations efforts in the immediate future would focus on working through Iraqi authorities in Baghdad on human rights issues and emergency assistance.

“We facilitate and (provide an) advisory role,” he said.  “We help discover how best to move the processes forward.” 

Qazi cited the recent elections as an example of how the United Nations could help.

Marine Col. David H. Berger, RCT-8 commander, met with Qazi and his team at the conclusion of the visit to discuss some of the U.N.’s concerns.  Berger added that several areas where Marine forces aren’t structured to aide the Iraqis needed to be addressed.  They included training for police investigation techniques against crimes, police internal affairs, judicial courts and the need for trained and experienced city planners to bring together and prioritize engineering and public works project to a cohesive vision.

U.N. officials left Camp Fallujah planning on making return trips.   Qazi said some possibilities he might undertake included facilitating compensation money delivered to business owners for damaged properties, increasing employment opportunities and drawing qualified experts from within the Iraqi communities to take on more responsibility.  They’re all positive signs to Al Anbar citizens their concerns are registering with Baghdad and the international community.

It’s the important signal the U.N. visit is sending in Anbar that counts right now,” Weston said.  It’s only the first step, but in the right direction.  There’s more to follow.”