UN to post refugee envoy in Iraq
Representative to help millions return home
BAGHDAD - The United Nations refugee chief said yesterday that he is sending a representative to Baghdad to help millions of displaced Iraqis return home, showing a strengthened UN commitment to deal with the crisis and confidence in recent security gains.
Antonio Guterres, the UN high commissioner for refugees, also pledged to increase his group's staffing level in Baghdad from two to five people.
"We are here because we are deeply committed to do more," Guterres said at a joint news conference with Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari. "We have confidence in the future of Iraq."
As Guterres made his promises, the top Iraqi commander for Baghdad, Lieutenant General Abboud Qanbar, said the number of bodies with bullet wounds found daily has dropped from at least 43 to about four under a year-old US-Iraqi security crackdown in the capital.
The statement was tempered by warnings that the battle was not over.
"An end date cannot be set for this security plan because of the kind of battle we are fighting against an enemy represented by insurgency and terrorism," Qanbar said.
Abdul-Qader al-Obeidi, Iraq's defense minister, said separately that the so-called surge of US troops has helped secure most of Baghdad.
But challenges remain from Al Qaeda in the north and what he called "criminals, gangs, and smugglers" in the south, where Shi'ite militias are involved in a violent power struggle.
He said US troops should remain in Iraq until domestic security forces are able to take their place, and the long-term need for US troops will be mostly related to border protection.
"There is 90 percent security in the capital," Obeidi said on the sidelines of a meeting in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Yet deadly violence in the streets of Baghdad remains a daily occurrence.
Two government officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the information, said police yesterday found two handcuffed, blindfolded, and shot-up bodies showing signs of torture in Baghdad.
Those killed were apparent victims of so-called sectarian death squads usually run by Shi'ite militias.
That was in sharp contrast to the dozens of bodies found on a typical day before Moqtada al-Sadr ordered his militia fighters to stand down. The six-month cease-fire expires at the end of this month, and it remains uncertain whether the radical Shi'ite cleric will extend it.
Guterres said the new UN representative on the refugee crisis "will be in Baghdad and no longer in Amman, as it has been the case. We believe it is here that the essential work needs to be done."
The UN and many other aid agencies moved from Baghdad to Amman after a couple of devastating attacks, including the truck bombing of the world body's Iraq headquarters in August 2003, which killed 22 people, including the top UN envoy in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello.
The UNHCR estimated this week that 2 million Iraqis have fled their war-ravaged country, many to neighboring Syria and Jordan.
Another 2.4 million are thought to be displaced from their homes but living inside the country, either because of Saddam Hussein's actions during his rule or because of the war.
Zebari said that, with decreasing violence in many areas of the nation over the past year, some internally displaced placed people have been moving back to their neighborhoods.
A recent Interior Ministry assessment found "nearly 4,000 families that have gone back to their homes willingly," he said.
But he and Guterres agreed that much more needs to be done.
The two sides said they will begin talking about how to assess when conditions are right for a more substantial return of refugees.
"There is never a humanitarian solution to a humanitarian problem," Guterres cautioned. "The plight of Iraqi refugees will end with national reconciliation and with their effective reintegration in the country and their contribution to the reconstruction of the country."
Last year, statements from the Iraqi government that the country was secure enough to handle a substantial return of refugees raised concerns from both the UN and the American military.
The United States warned that a massive repatriation could rekindle sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shi'ites and that some returnees found their Baghdad homes occupied by members of the other Muslim sect.