U.N. head visits Iraq, applauds provincial elections

BAGHDAD — U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon congratulated Iraq on Friday for the smooth running of provincial elections but said that the country still had a way to go to establish security and stability.

"Iraq has come a long way in taking their own affairs in hand, this being the first Iraqi-led and Iraqi-owned electoral process," Ban said. "It is a tribute to the growing effectiveness of the Iraqi Security Forces, and testifies to the increasing stability of the country."

The feeling of relative calm that had spread through the country in the run-up to provincial elections last Saturday was shaken Thursday when a suicide bomber killed 15 people at a restaurant in the northern province of Diyala.

The U.N. secretary-general, who appeared in Iraq on a surprise visit, said that Iraqis now must establish develop political means to resolve differences after years of bitter sectarian clashes.

"Iraqis need to embrace this opportunity by rising above narrow sectarian interests, reducing lingering tensions, remaining open to compromise solutions . . . and fostering consensus," Ban said.

Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, appearing alongside Ban, cited voters' willingness to look beyond sectarian lines for the strong lead that his party has now in the provincial elections, based on early ballot counting.

"These elections were based on programs," Maliki said. "They were not based on (candidates') affiliations."

Maliki's State of Law coalition won a plurality of votes in nine of the 14 provinces that participated, while the dominant Shiite Muslim party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, lost its grip on power. The party, which many view as an arm of Iran, had advocated a semiautonomous region in the south similar to Kurdistan in the north.

Another political party that stands to lose its footing based on early voting results is the Fadhila (Virtue) party, whose governor presides over Basra, the oil-rich province in the south that serves as the country's economic engine.

Final election results won't be released for at least another two weeks.

(Daniel is a staff writer for The Miami Herald.)


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