STOCKHOLM, Sweden (AP) – Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Friday that the country’s economic and security progress shows reconciliation between the nation’s feuding factions is almost completed.
“I’m not saying that Iraq is paradise; absolutely not,” al-Maliki told reporters in Stockholm. “There are great challenges. But I still would like to say that violent acts have decreased by 80 percent in Iraq.” His Shiite-dominated government is under pressure to show progress in reconciliation among the country’s Sunni Arabs, Shiites and Kurds. Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority has long felt it is being sidelined by the majority Shiites and the Kurds.
“We have come nearly to the end of the long process,” al-Maliki said at a joint news conference with Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt. “It doesn’t mean that everyone gets an equal piece of the pie, but it means that one must show a commitment for a unified, democratic Iraq.”
The largest Sunni Arab political bloc pulled its members out of the Cabinet in August, saying it was not getting enough say in decision-making. Sunni politicians have been negotiating a possible return, but suspended talks this week due to a dispute over ministry posts.
The Iraqi prime minister met Swedish government and industry officials Friday, a day after presenting his country’s security and economic progress in the past year to a U.N. conference.
Al-Maliki said the Iraqi government has earmarked funds to facilitate the “voluntary returns” of Iraqi refugees who have fled to neighboring countries and Europe since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
That was welcome news to Sweden, which has admitted more than 40,000 Iraqis in five years and is looking for cooperation from Iraqi authorities to send back rejected asylum-seekers.
“This will take place if we prepare for it, especially when security improves and when work opportunities increase,” al-Maliki said. “We hope that this is a matter that will have an impact on the development of our relations with European countries and also with neighboring countries.”
Fewer than 1 percent of the 5.1 million Iraqis uprooted from their homes had returned by March 31, according to the International Organization for Migration, an intergovernmental humanitarian group based in Switzerland.
Up to half the displaced are in neighboring countries, chiefly Jordan and Syria. But these countries, feeling overwhelmed, have tightened visa restrictions. Iraqis who are refugees in their own country are feeling the pinch of high rents, lost jobs and the disruption of their children’s education.
“We have statistics that say that tens of thousands of refugees wish to return,” al-Maliki said. “We welcome them and we will give them privileges.”