After years of war and recent security setbacks, Iraq is making steady strides politically and economically ahead of the U.S. troop withdrawal scheduled for the end of the year, according to the special representative of the U.N. secretary-general for Iraq.
"Are you optimistic or are you pessimistic?” has been the question I have been asked most by many," said Ad Melkert, the head of the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq. He briefed the U.N. Security Council this week on the secretary-general’s latest report of the mission's activities in Iraq.
"In most of what I have witnessed in Iraq there is ground for cautious optimism, provided that determined leadership within the country and a stronger spirit of cooperation in the region with Iraq prevail."
Challenges persist, Melkert said but "real progress" has been made in replacing Iraq’s "ruthless" Saddam Hussein regime "with institutions mandated by constitutional principles."
"Government formation" has progressed, despite a "drawn out" process - the approval of a government in December after March 2010 elections.
"In some important aspects, Iraq is at the heart of fundamental changes in the region. The Iraqi system of government incorporates a power-sharing Constitution, guaranteeing the participation of women and minorities and nurturing a culture of ongoing constitutional debate. Regular elections have taken place, conducted in line with international standards.
"Meanwhile, Parliament is taking an increasingly important role in decision-making. And in a departure from decades of authoritarian regime, negotiations between all parties have become the predominant feature of political life."
He said the government and the parliament, called the Council of Representatives, have pursued "a true debate about the policies that need to be put in place in order to modernize infrastructure and the economy, improve social services delivery and combat\institutional lethargy and corruption."
Melkert cited Iraq's economic growth Iraq’s economy. It is growing at a rate of more than 10%. He said oil revenues are at a higher level than projected and "updates on proven reserve" are reconfirming Iraq’s prominence in global oil."
"Total foreign direct investment in 2010 increased by almost 50% against the previous year, up to a level of just over $42 billion. Areas that have benefited include construction, transportation, electricity, industry, oil and gas, water and sanitation, health and agriculture."
On the other hand, Melkert said, there are major concerns. Iraq's poverty index "remains high at 22.9%. and notes that such "inequality poses an instability risk for the future."
Armed opposition groups have been working to "undo positive developments," He cites "waves of kidnappings and assassinations targeting civil servants, holders of\ political office, academics, doctors and activists."
"These and other acts of violence, which unfortunately have not subsided in recent months, emphasize once more the need for determined, jointly shared political action against the perpetrators, wherever they may derive their support from."
While demonstrations have been viewed "as a legitimate way to express grievances," he said, "the practice of freedom of expression is under considerable pressure."
Territorial and power disputes in Kirkuk and filling security ministries are among “pending issues” that have to be dealt with in order to maintain "indisputable gains” in Iraq.