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U.N. warns against unrealistic expectations in Iraq

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq is making strides in strengthening its fledgling democracy despite violence and political feuds, but global expectations about a country just emerging from war remain too high, a senior U.N. official said.

Ad Melkert, who leads the U.N. mission in Iraq, has been meeting Iraqi political leaders as the campaign for the parliamentary election on March 7 gathers momentum.

It will be the first time in Iraq, where Saddam Hussein won 99 or even 100 percent of the vote in show elections before he was ousted in 2003, that a fully democratic, full-term parliament hands over to a successor.

"I'd like to tell everybody that seven years is not a lot. You see enormous changes in a country that actually has never seen different centres of power competing in a peaceful way," Melkert, a former Dutch politician, said in an interview.

Iraq, Melkert said, was still recreating ministries and other institutions all but obliterated after the U.S. invasion in March 2003. Since then, they have been haltingly rebuilt, restaffed and refocused amid bloodshed, lawlessness and theft.

Despite such challenges, Melkert and other Western officials say progress had been made several areas, not just in combating violence.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is trying to restore Iraq to its position in the world economy and the Oil Ministry is signing landmark deals that could make the country a leading oil producer.

Technologies new to Iraq, such as the Internet and cell phones, have brought sweeping changes and the streets of Baghdad are full of imported cars.

Still, many Iraqis are poor. Complaints abound about poor electricity supplies, corruption and unresponsive bureaucracy.

"Nobody should think this is a matter of a few months, a few years. It's going to take a long time before we're at the level that maybe meets more general standards," Melkert said.

In contrast to Washington's ambitious pre-invasion plans for putting Iraq in the vanguard of democratic change in the Middle East, such words are another reminder of the toll that more than six years of bloodshed and deprivation have taken.

Setting an election date was a milestone after months of political foot-dragging over seat allocations and demographic quarrels that reflected ethnic and sectarian divisions.

"The process was complicated and protracted, but not very different than what I've seen in my own parliamentary career and what we've seen in other countries ... let's think of the (U.S.) Congress dealing with the health bill," Melkert said.

"There were a lot of things going on in back rooms and corridors, slamming of doors, but at the end of the day people and ideas coming together in an outcome that is generally accepted. And that's what happened."

The chest-beating that led to the election compromise raised questions about how well political blocs, none of which is likely to win an outright majority, would work together to form a government and to rule after the election.


The United Nations will add its own monitors to up to 250,000 local observers who will fan out in March to guard against fraud at 50,000 polling stations.

The government is sure to take extensive security precautions. Violence has fallen sharply since the darkest days of 2006 and 2007, but the insurgency has not been defeated.

Maliki's campaign for a second term, built on his security record, is likely to be more difficult given recent deadly bomb attacks against government buildings.

U.S. President Barack Obama is keen to see Iraq stand on its own feet and settle political feuds, such as the power struggle between Arabs and Kurds that has held up important legislation and undermined stability.

Obama has committed to adding 30,000 troops to the fight in Afghanistan, putting pressure on military leaders in Iraq to stick to the plans to reduce U.S. troop numbers there from about 115,000 now to 50,000 by late summer.

That makes it all the more important that Iraq has an effective government.

"Sometimes there is, of course, also impatience, certainly also in the United States, but it's not justified given what the history is, what the challenges are and the progress that Iraq is making," Melkert said.

(Editing by Andrew Dobbie)

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