The U.N. secretary-general said Saturday the world body plans to open a new office in Baghdad to encourage cooperation between Iraq and its neighbors, but voiced strong concerns about the continuing security problems in the country.
Ban Ki-moon said he hoped "more would be done" to improve Baghdad's security as the U.N. builds its presence, which has been greatly reduced since an Aug. 19, 2003, bombing at its Baghdad headquarters that killed 22 people.
Ban's comments about security - as he sat alongside Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki - reflected the challenges confronting the Iraqi premier's struggle to stabilize the country while dealing with pressure from congressional Democrats who are calling for the quick withdrawal of American forces.
Earlier Saturday, al-Maliki, in pledging that Iraqi forces would take responsibility for the security of an expanded U.N. mission, had said that the "Baghdad of today is different from the Baghdad of yesterday."
Despite security concerns, Ban emphasized that the international community cannot turn away from Iraq.
"Its stability is our common concern," he said after a meeting that grouped top diplomats representing many of Iraq's neighbors, the United States, donor nations and other groups.
Al-Maliki, who is in New York for the U.N. General Assembly and is scheduled to meet with President Bush on the sidelines, acknowledged that the country continued to face challenges, but said that "those following the situation in Iraq have spoken of a marked improvement (in security)."
"National reconciliation does not come about by force," al-Maliki said, referring to the effort to bring together the country's rival ethnic and religious factions. Fighting between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, compounded by terror attacks, has largely undermined Iraq's reconstruction.
The meeting between al-Maliki, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Ban and other diplomats sought to build upon a Security Council resolution passed last month which authorized the expansion of the U.N. presence in Iraq. Rice and al-Maliki spoke to each other only briefly.
Bringing together neighbors such as Iran and Syria also underscored the importance of a collaborative approach to stabilizing the country. Both neighboring countries have been repeatedly accused by the U.S. of failing to secure their borders and arming Iraqi militias.
Ban said the new office in Baghdad would help foster dialogue between the countries bordering Iraq and that its framework and other details would be addressed at a meeting in October in Turkey. Another office is also being considered in the southern city of Basra and the office in Irbil, in the north, could be expanded.
"U.N. experience around the world reveals that such offices facilitate communication and helps to maintain coherent direction," he said, according to a statement of his comments to the diplomats.
The tensions between the U.S. and Iran, which the Bush administration has accused of arming Iraqi militias, surfaced during the gathering.
Rice told reporters after the meeting she had been pleased that participants offered their "full commitment" to Iraq, especially through an expanded U.N. mission. Another top State Department official expressed displeasure with Iran's "very long" presentation, saying it was more a rambling complaint about the U.S. than about Iraq issues.
David Satterfield, the department's Iraq coordinator, said it was difficult for the U.S. to take Iran's pledge to work in support of reconciling Iraq's various factions while it continued to arm and train insurgents. Iran denies those charges.
"What they are doing on the ground is that they are continuing to supply arms and training on arms to the most violent, most lethal, most radical elements in Iraq," Satterfield told reporters. "We don't believe this is consistent with a pledge to support reconciliation."
Some in the Iraqi delegation offered similar criticism of Iran, but al-Maliki described the dialogue as "positive."
George Barqos, an adviser to the Iraqi premier, said Iran's presentation was "not up to standard," pointing out that both Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and Syria's representative at the talks indicated that Iraq's security woes stem from the presence of foreign forces.
"We reject interference from neighboring countries with regard to the foreign forces because they are there at the request of the Iraqi government," said Barqos. "We will not allow interference in our affairs just as we will not interfere in the affairs of others."