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Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York

30 November 2005

Ibrahim Gambari, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, met with correspondents at a Headquarters press conference this afternoon to share impressions from his first trip to the Middle East in his capacity as Political Affairs head. At the time of the press conference, he had just emerged from a more in-depth briefing to the Security Council on the same topic.

He said that during the 12-day trip, he accompanied the Secretary-General to Iraq, and also made his own visits to Jordan, Kuwait, Israel, Lebanon and the Occupied Territories of Palestine.

He said that during his visit to Lebanon, he had met five Government Ministers, leaders of religious organizations and the Chairman of the Electoral Law Reform, to convey the United Nations’ commitment to Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence. He also toured the full length of the Blue Line by helicopter, and was in the region when fire erupted after an initial volley from the Lebanese side. That event underscored for him the importance of extending the Lebanese Government’s authority over all its territory.

A notable development in that country included the expansion of the Office of the Personal Representative of the Secretary-General for Southern Lebanon to include the whole of Lebanon.

Turning to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, he said that, after a visit to Gaza and the West Bank, and observing parts of the separation barrier around Jerusalem, he was “optimistic but without illusion”. He described the newly opened Rafah crossing as important for establishing connectivity for the Territory, which, in turn, was vital for its political and economic recovery.

For its part, the United Nations had a duty to ensure that the agreement to maintain the opening was fully implemented. He commended the United States, in particular Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, as well as Special Envoy James Wolfensohn and the European Union -- who would be monitoring the crossing -- for their part in bringing the process to fruition, but noted that issues over sea ports, airports, and other linkages between Gaza and other occupied territories had yet to be addressed.

Speaking on Iraq, he said that one purpose of the visit was to meet with United Nations staff, who were working under difficult conditions. The current focus was to provide technical assistance to the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq in the run-up to the 15 December elections.

He said electoral preparations were essentially on track. Ballots had been printed, electoral officials trained, and an informational campaign was under way.

The thrust of the United Nations’ position was that “the electoral process should be inclusive and transparent” and “one that would help to unite Iraqis and sideline violence and their proponents”, he said. “For example, Sunnis recognize the power that they had, even though it was a negative capability during the referendum -- to stop what they don’t want. Now we are encouraging them to use that power for what they want: to have members of parliament and to be part of those who would agree on the text of a constitution.”

He likened the United Nations to an “actor playing a supporting role” in the process of national reconciliation. He expressed support for the initiative of the League of Arab States to work with Iraqis to establish a mechanism through which such a reconciliation could take place.

In the question-and-answer session, Mr. Gambari responded to a query about a possible extension of the Mehlis investigation, saying he had not received any formal word that it would happen. However, since the job was far from done -- interviews of Syrian officials were only due to begin in Vienna next week -- he said he presumed the Lebanese Government or the Mehlis Commission itself would seek an extension to complete the investigation, adding that those entities had been given a “carte blanche” by the Security Council to do so, should they wish.

Asked whether Mr. Mehlis had made any indication that he would continue the investigation beyond the original timeframe, Mr. Gambari said he did not think Mr. Mehlis viewed himself as continuing ad infinitum, as he was sure to have other commitments.

Mr. Gambari also fielded questions regarding a Syrian-Lebanese border dispute over the Shabaa farms area, saying that a report by the Special Envoy for the implementation of Security Council resolution 1559, Terje Roed-Larsen, already dealt with the matter.

Asked to elaborate on the enlarged mandate for the Personal Representative of the Secretary-General for Lebanon, Geir Pederson, he said the latter would play a coordinating role, helping to tie together multiple United Nations functions in that country. Those included mandates carried out by Mr. Roed-Larsen, Alvaro de Soto (Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process and Personal Representative of the Secretary-General to the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority), the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), the United Nations Country Team, the Mehlis Commission, and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNWRA).

Responding to a question on the flow of arms and personnel from Syria into Lebanon, Mr. Gambari said he had no evidence that Syria had changed its stance. He added that Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora was doing a “good balancing job” in the face of economic pressure and the presence of militia groups and others that sought to provoke disaffection.

One questioner noted that he had met with Hezbollah officials, and asked whether that had sent “the right signals”. Mr. Gambari emphasized that the purpose of those meetings was to stress the need to implement Security Council resolutions, including regarding the disarmament of Hezbollah. “There was no intention to confer legitimacy on anyone”, he added. Those meetings had taken place in the context of a need to touch base with all interlocutors in Lebanon, without prejudice to the United Nations’ own view regarding the positions taken.

His message to those he met was that “we cannot have two sets of Lebanese: one with arms and one without arms”, he said.

Asked why the officials he met in Israel were of a “lower level” compared to those he had met in other countries, Mr. Gambari said he met the Israeli National Security Adviser, and would have met the Special Adviser to the Prime Minister, as well as the President; but since his trip coincided with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s decision to leave the Likud Party, those individuals had “more important things on their mind than meeting with ‘Mr. Gambari’”, he said.

Asked to comment on the fairness of upcoming elections in the Palestinian Territories, he said a request was being made to allow individuals in detention to vote, and that if Israel did not cooperate, it risked being seen as heavy-handed. That, in turn, could play into the hands of Hamas and the Islamic jihad.

On the same topic, he added that the United Nations was not in a position to pass judgement on such matters, since they were just giving technical assistance to the electoral commission. On the confiscation of ballot boxes, he said he had heard reports that it had led to the suspension of the primaries, but expressed conviction that officials would find a way around the problem, because elections had been postponed too many times in the past and another postponement risked ruining the Electoral Commission’s credibility.

On Iraq, a question arose over the use of phosphorus weapons as described in the “Shake and Bake” editorial in yesterday’s The New York Times. Mr. Gambari replied that they were still learning about the issue, but he expressed concern about the casualties that could be caused by the use of such potent weapons in civilian areas.

In light of possible scaling down of United States troops in Iraq, Mr. Gambari was met with questions on whether the United Nations had evolved a plan to introduce its own troops to the country, alongside its “facilitative” activities. He replied that his department dealt with political affairs and, as such, its focus was on national reconciliation, elections, human rights and other similar issues. He was not aware whether the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations had laid out any scenarios involving United Nations troops.

In reply to a comment that the United Nations had tended to keep a low profile in the country, he said he did not believe the work they were doing was small. “We are working within the political space to do the quiet work of developing a culture of human rights”, he said.

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For information media • not an official record

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