The United Nations today hailed the convening of the new Iraqi Transitional National Assembly as a seminal moment with unlimited opportunities for the future of the war-torn country, pledging the world body's help in the tasks and challenges that lie ahead.
In a statement issued by his spokesman, Secretary-General Kofi Annan assured the Iraqi people that the UN "will continue to support their efforts in the political and economic reconstruction of their country, including by providing any needed assistance to Iraq's sovereign and independent constitution-making process."
In an address to the Assembly's inaugural session in Baghdad, Mr. Annan's Special Representative Ashraf Qazi also highlighted the importance of writing the new constitution, the major task before the body, as completing Iraq's transition to democracy under new elections by the end of the year.
"Today is, indeed, a seminal moment in the history of Iraq," he declared. "We are all privileged to witness history in the making. The opportunities before the people of Iraq are unlimited. But the challenges facing them are also significant. The coming months will show whether they will be successfully met," he added.
As he has ever since the new assembly was elected on 30 January, Mr. Qazi stressed the need to ensure that all sectors are included in the next phase of the transition after large numbers of Sunni Arabs failed to participate in January's vote either due to boycott calls, intimidation or fear of violence. They will have little presence therefore in the body writing the constitution.
"It is a tribute to your sagacity that almost all of the parties and lists represented in this Assembly have made clear that they wish to discuss ways and means to hear and respond to the voices of those of their compatriots who may not feel sufficiently represented in it," he said.
"Building such bridges of dialogue, inclusion, understanding, compromise and confidence will be critical to the success of drafting a constitution that will stand the test of time," he added. Shiite Arabs, who voted enthusiastically, represent about 60 per cent of the electorate, while Sunni Arabs and mainly Sunni Kurds, who also turned out en masse, represent about 20 per cent each.
"I have no doubt that you will resolve and rise above current differences through compromise and dialogue and bearing the national interest in mind, and you will lay the foundations for an enduring constitutional democracy that radiates promise throughout the region," Mr. Qazi said. "In these endeavours, the United Nations will always stand with you."
Recalling the role of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) in providing technical and advisory assistance for the January elections, he declared: "We were privileged to have advised and assisted the Independent Election Commission of Iraq with regard to the conduct of the recent elections.
"We shall be privileged, if requested, to facilitate your sovereign and independent constitution-making process," he said, emphasizing the UN's role under Security Council Resolution 1546 to promote national dialogue and consensus within an all-inclusive political process.
On a more sombre note the envoy recalled that today also marked the 17th anniversary of the "atrocity perpetrated on innocent civilians including the women and children of Halabja," when Saddam Hussein's regime killed some 5,000 Iraqi Kurds in a chemical weapons attack on the northern town.
"May the contrast between such dark days that afflicted the people of Iraq and today's promise of peace and freedom spur all Iraqis never to abandon hope, no matter how daunting circumstances maybe," he said.