After visiting polling centres in Anbar, Ninewa and Baghdad, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Iraq, Staffan de Mistura, said he was “very pleased with the high number of women he saw voting and that Iraqis from all communities were out exercising their right to vote for new governorate council representatives.”“The voting was well-organized, polling staff were all following the same procedures and [the] Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) seems to have demonstrated its independence and professionalism on this day,” he added in a press release issued by the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI). However, “Conditions remain far from ‘normal,’” Mr. de Mistura warned in an opinion piece published today in the Washington Post to coincide with the watershed local elections taking place across Iraq.“Dozens of Iraqis continue to die each week at the hands of merciless extremists. While life here is getting better, the security situation impedes the Iraqi people’s efforts to escape the morass they have been in for many years, and it limits what we can all do to help,” he wrote.The Special Representative noted that despite the difficulties surrounding the elections, ethnic tensions in the south of Iraqi Kurdistan and the need for different factions in the country to reconcile, there are signs of hope for the future. “The performance of most provincial councils elected four years ago has been so disappointing that a pronounced ‘throw the bums out’ mentality exists in many places.More than 14,000 candidates are competing to sit on these local councils, many of them determined to help improve the poor delivery of public services such as electricity, water, sanitation, schools and health care.”Mr. de Mistura also stressed that UNAMI’s work with local authorities to ensure free and fair balloting, including the training of 60,000 electoral observers, and the participation of Sunni parties this time around should increase Iraqi people’s confidence in their local governments. But growing friction between Arabs and Kurds, especially in the oil-rich province of Kirkuk, has infected almost every aspect of politics and obstructed progress in agreeing conditions for the vital oil law, revenue-sharing and constitutional review.“They brought the armed forces of the central government and the Kurdish region to the brink of conflict a few months ago,” said Mr. de Mistura. “And they provoke the mutual distrust and unhelpful rhetoric that appears to paralyze governance at many levels.”The Special Representative urged Iraq’s friends in the international community to press the national (largely Arab) and the regional (Kurdish) leaderships to soothe tensions and explore solutions through dialogue to their differences.Underscoring the need for all the major communities – Sunni, Shiite, Arab and Kurd – to recognise the need for compromise to allow the budding democratic system the space to grow, Mr. de Mistura wrote, “there have been several issues, including the elections law and in the disputed areas, where tense political stand-offs were ended when an impartial outsider presented a proposal that all sides could agree on as a face-saving win.”The day after condemning the murder of three candidates, killed while campaigning for today’s elections, Mr. de Mistura said, “While the security situation is improving, political violence in Iraq will not simply end in the coming months.But 2009 is the second year running in which Iraqis will have a chance to experience real advances – along with inevitable hiccups – toward national sovereignty, democratic accountability, political stability, physical security and material prosperity.” 31 January 2009As elections for regional councils in Iraq seemed to have passed peacefully today, the top United Nations envoy to the country warned of tough challenges ahead, including the need to heal ethnic divisions and for national reconciliation, that could jeopardize recent progress.