| UNITED NATIONS
UNITED NATIONS The United Nations' chief envoy in Iraq gave a mixed report on Monday on the situation, saying security had improved but an Iraqi political consensus was needed for a long-term reduction in violence.
"We cannot ignore the recent improvements both in the security and political situation in Iraq," Staffan de Mistura, head of the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), said in a address to the Security Council.
Reasons for the reduced level of violence include the increased presence of U.S. and other troops, a ceasefire declared by Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army militia and increased cooperation with Iraq's neighbors, he said.
However, "absent a political consensus on the most fundamental elements of the Iraqi state -- currently tenuous -- the Iraqis will achieve no lasting solution on the reduction of violence," he warned the council.
Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations, Hamid al-Bayati, told the council "the Iraqi government is determined to continue its efforts to achieve national reconciliation to reinforce social cohesion and to avoid a civil war."
De Mistura said the Iraqi parliament's approval of a law allowing some members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party to return to government jobs was a significant political reform that could help improve Sunni-Shi'ite ties.
The law is the first of a series of measures Washington had been pressing Iraq's Shi'ite-led government to pass in an effort to draw the minority Sunni Arab community that held sway under Saddam closer into the political process.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad also described an improved security situation, which he said was largely the result of the "surge" of 30,000 additional troops Washington sent last year.
While de Mistura praised Iraq's neighbors for cooperating, Khalilzad accused neighboring Syria and Iran of not keeping promises to do more to stop violent attacks in Iraq.
"Foreign terrorists and suicide bombers still enter Iraq through Syria," Khalilzad said in his speech.
He said Damascus must do more to stop them, saying it should enforce a stricter visa policy, detain those who aid militants, tighten border security and share information.
"The Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps continues to train, equip and finance Shi'ite extremists, despite reported assurances to Prime Minister (Nuri) al-Maliki that Iran will cease lethal aid," Khalilzad said.
'THE MOST DANGEROUS PLACE'
The Security Council last year called on the United Nations to step up its role in Iraq through efforts to promote reconciliation between the country's factions and boost ties with its neighbors. U.N. staff in Iraq are slated to increase.
After the August 2003 bombing of U.N. headquarters in Iraq, which killed 15 U.N. staff and seven visitors, the United Nations slashed its activities in the country to a minimum. De Mistura said he and his team were well aware of the risks involved in expanding the U.N. presence in Iraq.
"It's probably the most dangerous place in the world for the U.N. to operate," he told a news conference.
More recently, 17 U.N. staff were among at least 41 people killed in two bombings in Algiers on December 11. A group called Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb claimed responsibility.
In a report on UNAMI last week, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said it was "encouraging" that Iraqi leaders in Baghdad and the northern Kurdish region had begun cooperating with de Mistura to defuse tensions.
Last year de Mistura helped persuade Kurdish lawmakers to delay a referendum to decide the fate of Kirkuk, an oil-rich city claimed by both Kurds and Arabs. Analysts worry that such a vote could spark bloodshed and draw in neighboring Turkey, which has a large Kurdish minority.
(Editing by Eric Beech)