UN Chief Praises Moves Toward Stability in Rare Iraq Visit

BAGHDAD (AP) -- The United Nations chief on Wednesday praised Iraq for repatriating citizens detained in neighboring Syria on suspicion of ties to the Islamic State group and pledged international support for the country's efforts to regain stability and security.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres spoke to reporters during a rare visit to Baghdad, his first in six years, ahead of this month's 20-year anniversary of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

The years that followed Saddam's overthrow saw widespread sectarian violence and the rise first of al-Qaida in the region and later, the extremist Islamic State group, which at one point controlled wide swaths of territory, including Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul. "We recognize that the challenges Iraq is facing did not arise overnight," Guterres said, speaking at a news conference alongside Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani. "They are the product of decades of oppression, war, terrorism, sectarianism and foreign interference."

He praised the formation of Iraq's new government in October, after a yearlong political stalemate, and the country's "ambitious and forward-looking reform agenda." He also pledged U.N. support for systematic governance reforms and for measures to address Iraq's looming water crisis, which experts expect to be exacerbated by climate change.

Guterres commended Iraq for repatriating its citizens from northeastern Syria, particularly from al-Hol camp, which holds tens of thousands of women and children -- primarily the wives, widows and children of IS fighters -- in what human rights groups have described as dangerous and squalid living conditions.

On Sunday, Iraq repatriated some 582 people from the camp to a rehabilitation center near the town of Qayara, south of Mosul.

Guterres described Iraq's actions as an "example for the world" while noting that many women and children "remain stranded in desperate conditions."

He called for implementation of promised measures that would allow members of the Yazidi religious minority displaced by IS attacks to return to their homes in the town of Sinjar and for the central government in Baghdad and Iraq's northern semi-autonomous Kurdish government to reach agreements on contentious budget issues and on a law governing oil and gas deals.

Guterres was to visit the Iraqi Kurdish region's government and in the city of Irbil on Thursday, and meet with Kurdish leaders.