I thank you, a Chathaoirligh, for the opportunity to contribute to this important debate on the situation in Iraq. I am pleased to have this opportunity to address the Seanad on recent developments in Iraq. I welcome the continuing interest of Senators in this important topic.
The future of Iraq is a foreign policy issue of first importance to the international community as a whole, to the European Union and to Ireland. That is not only because of the security and humanitarian needs of the Iraqi people, which deeply concern us all, but because after over 20 years of the most brutal dictatorship in Iraq the international community has the opportunity — indeed the moral obligation — to assist the Iraqi people make a better life for themselves in the wake of the terrible tragedies that have afflicted them over that period.
The geographic location of Iraq, together with its natural resources and regional weight, mean that it will always be of importance to the wider world. Iraq has a large population, abundant water and agricultural land and very large oil and gas reserves, giving it advantages over some of its neighbours which the former regime was quick to abuse. Iraq lies close to very large oilfields in neighbouring countries and to the centres of conflict in the Middle East region. It straddles the divide between the Arab and non-Arab worlds and the borderlands of Sunni and Shia Islam and may well, in the foreseeable future, border the European Union itself.
Under the Saddam Hussein dictatorship, Iraq was a force for instability in the region and a serial aggressor against its neighbours. It also engaged in gas and chemical warfare against its own people and against Iran, indiscriminate ballistic missile bombardments of cities, and ecological destruction intended to damage its perceived enemies.
The stated objective of the European Union is to help in the establishment of a free, sovereign and democratic Iraq which can play a positive role in the region and that wider regional dimension should not be lost on Senators or Deputies. Achieving stability in this region is a vital concern to all of us in the international community who claim to play a part in this and who claim internationalist aspirations in our conduct.
Recent developments in Iraq can be summed up as exhibiting two contradictory trends. On the one hand, there has been a period of unprecedented political activity, debate and movement. On the other however, there is no sign yet that the campaign of violence in some areas of Iraq is being brought under control. In some ways it seems to be worsening. It is in all our interests, and above all in the interests of the Iraqi people themselves, that the political process prevails over the cycle of violence. That imperative is the basis for the Government's policy on Iraq, which everyone can support regardless of the view they took of the war in Iraq. While the war caused major division in this House, the other House and throughout Ireland and Europe, those of us concerned with humanitarian issues and the geopolitical situation in that region in general now have an opportunity to unite in supporting Iraq so that stability can be re-established.
The route map for the political process in Iraq was laid down in UN Security Council Resolution 1546 of June 2004, which united the international community in their approach to Iraq after the divisions occasioned by the war in 2003. That process began with the transfer of sovereignty to the interim Government of Iraq.
For all of us, a particularly important milestone was reached with the elections held in January this year. For the first time ever Iraqis had the opportunity to freely choose their own rulers. Despite the violence in many parts of the country, the paucity of national media and the fact that almost all the political parties were newly established, the public across Iraq showed a keen interest in participating in the process. We saw many instances where voters had to brave real threats to their lives to exercise their vote and some voters, candidates and election workers were killed. No democrat could be indifferent to the sight of long queues of people braving these threats to cast their vote.
The election delivered a substantial victory to the Unified Iraqi Coalition while the religious-oriented Shia coalition, backed by Ayatollah Sistani, won just over half the seats. There was also substantial representation for the secular Shia list of outgoing interim Prime Minister Allawi and for the Kurdish parties.
Two factors of note are important for later developments. All of these blocs comprise coalitions of a large number of small and mostly new political parties. This has undoubtedly had an effect on political developments, in that a much larger number of players are involved in trying to reach consensus on key issues. The other crucial issue is that of Sunni representation. Due to violence concentrated in Sunni areas, and to a boycott of the elections by Sunni parties, the representation of the Sunni community in the transitional national assembly is very small, with only 17 seats where they might have gained 40 or 50 based on their percentage of the population, which is approximately 20%.
This has produced a political need to ensure that the Sunni community is adequately involved in the political process, in the new Iraqi Government and in the drafting of the new constitution, which is a function of the new assembly. The Government, in statements and in replies to Dáil questions on Iraq, and the EU Council of Ministers in its references to the subject, have highlighted the importance of Sunni involvement. How this is to be achieved is, of course, a matter for Iraqis themselves. Without an electoral mandate, the real authority of individual Sunni leaders is unproven.
Despite these difficulties, earlier this month we saw the transfer of power to the new transitional Government of Iraq under Mr. Jaafari. The advent of an elected Iraqi Government represents a real step forward. The new structures involve a sharing of the key posts. The Presidency Council includes a Kurdish President and Shia and Sunni Vice-Presidents. The Speaker of the Assembly is a Sunni, as are six Ministers, including the key post of defence.
The challenges facing the new Government are great. Power-sharing between so many groups and creating a constitution are difficult enough tasks on their own, but the Government also has to try to overcome the serious violence that plagues the country and to rebuild the administration, economy and infrastructure damaged by three wars and a decade of isolation and sanctions. It will need, and is entitled to expect, the support of the international community.
Many actors are involved in providing this support. The United Nations has been central to re-establishing international unity on how to proceed in Iraq. Its own involvement on the ground was greatly restricted following the attack in August 2003 on its Baghdad headquarters that killed many UN staff, including the Secretary General's special representative, Sergio de Mello. His successor, Ashraf Qazi, has been active in trying to involve Sunni groups in the political process.
The UN has concentrated its assistance on support for the elections and the constitutional process. Ireland has contributed €500,000 to a fund to establish a dedicated UN protection force, which it is hoped will provide the security which will allow the UN to step up its involvement in Iraq. In my first few weeks in the Department of Foreign Affairs this funding was granted in response to a request from Kofi Annan, who visited Ireland in September 2004 and expressed concern at his ability to protect UN personnel. That meeting was attended by my colleague the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, and we agreed to assist in enhancing security around UN personnel in Iraq. This was in keeping with our commitment to support the central role played by the UN in all respects.
Ireland's principal engagement with Iraq is as a member the EU. The EU is not involved in the provision of security in Iraq, although some member states contribute troops to the multinational force. The EU is committed to supporting the political and economic reconstruction of Iraq. The November 2004 European Council adopted a declaration on Iraq setting out a range of measures to assist this process. The EU has provided very substantial resources for reconstruction, and has given assistance to the Iraqi electoral commission in organising the elections. During 2005 the EU will, inter alia, continue financial support for reconstruction, conduct a police and rule-of-law training mission in Europe, offer expert assistance on the process of drafting the constitution, and assist in the organisation of the constitutional referendum and subsequent elections.
The EU and the United States, at the request of the Iraqi Government, will host an international conference on Iraq in Brussels on 22 June. This will provide a further opportunity for the international community to demonstrate its support for the new Iraqi Government and for the tasks it faces. It will also enable Iraq to set out its priorities and plans for the work of reconstruction, as it is now for the Iraqi Government to take the lead role in directing these efforts. There is a Government in place, the fledgling democracy has taken root, and we must support that.
In addition to Ireland's contribution to the EU effort, the Government has been active in providing bilateral assistance to Iraq. In 2003 the Government pledged up to €3 million in humanitarian and recovery assistance to Iraq, to be disbursed as circumstances allow. That was disbursed directly from the budget of Development Co-operation Ireland for emergency aid. To date, €1.5 million of this pledge has been delivered. A sum of €1 million has been contributed through the international reconstruction facility for Iraq to support UNICEF's primary education programme. A sum of €500,000 has also been delivered to the NGO Assisting Marsh Arabs and Refugees, AMAR, for health care programmes to assist the marsh Arab population of southern Iraq, who suffered considerably under the former regime. I do not have to recount the plight of these people under Saddam Hussein.
The continuing security problems in Iraq have greatly slowed the pace of reconstruction projects there, and have curtailed the work of international bodies and NGOs, and hence the draw-down of pledged funding. We are ready to commit the balance of the pledged funding as suitable projects are identified.
Due to the insurgency and continued violent rebel activities, there is a practical issue of dispersing the assistance we have pledged. Ireland's international reputation for pledging overseas aid and funds and for following through on these pledges is extremely strong relative to other countries. While there are a number of somewhat more unscrupulous countries in the world that are quick to pledge at international conferences and gatherings but never deliver on them, Ireland's record is regarded as being among the best. In this case, however, there are practical issues concerning the insurgents that make it difficult for us to disperse the total amounts allocated.
There is no doubt that the continuing violence in Iraq has greatly hampered the efforts of the Iraqi people to rebuild the country. Infrastructural and other reconstruction projects are unable to proceed as contractors and their staff are attacked. As we have seen in the tragic case of Ms Margaret Hassan, even charity workers trying to improve the lives of the people can be targeted and murdered in a most horrible manner. In recent months, seemingly in response to the progress on the political front, the insurgency has demonstrated its continued ability to mount attacks in Baghdad and across a wide stretch of central Iraq.
Analysis of the groups is sketchy but they seem to involve disaffected elements of the old regime, Iraqi nationalists reacting to the presence of foreign forces and Islamic radicals, many of whom are from other countries. This is a particularly reprehensible feature of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. These various strands are by no means of one mind in their motivation or objectives. As the political process develops, it may prove possible to convince some of them to renounce violence and to isolate the more hardline elements from their support. To what extent this is possible remains to be seen.
In recent months, the insurgency has visibly changed focus from attacks on foreign forces to attacks on Iraqi people. This has included attacks on those trying to play a part in the rebuilding of their country through participation in the security forces or the administration. The aim of these attacks is clearly to prevent the Iraqi Government from establishing effective security forces of its own without the support of the multinational force currently in Iraq. Other attacks, notably massive bomb attacks on markets, mosques and other public places, seem clearly designed to cause maximum civilian casualties among the Shia and Kurdish communities to provoke them into a retaliation that may lead to intercommunal fighting and chaos. I unreservedly condemn those who perpetrate these types of attacks and who would seek to deny the right of the Iraqi people to decide their own destiny.
All of us here share a deep concern for what is happening in Iraq, when every day seems to bring news of more appalling attacks. However, the vast majority of the Iraqi people and their representatives are struggling hard to rebuild their country and to enjoy a freedom they have never known. They deserve this chance and I hope Ireland will continue to play positive financial, political, diplomatic and other roles through the good offices of this House and its Members to support the Iraqi people in what must be a most forbidding challenge, namely, the establishment of a democracy in an ethnically diverse and geostrategically important country. We should support them because Iraq above all other countries deserves much support after the horrible tyranny inflicted on it by Saddam Hussein over the years and the regional instability this induced.