Staffan de Mistura, the Secretary-General's Special Representative for Iraq, told a meeting of the Security Council that the summer and fall have witnessed, despite some occasional spikes, a steady reduction in the levels of violence in Iraq.
However, there was also some political tensions as a result of the initial stalemate over the provincial elections law in July and the issues of minority representation in the elections.
"Iraq now enters a delicate electoral period where every small security gain is likely to give space to political dialogue should be built upon in order to avoid any electoral-related violence linked to the provincial elections of 31 January 2009," Mr. de Mistura stated.
"Iraqis should not relent in grasping the momentum to advance on gains attained in 2008," he told the 15-member body.
"The international community," he added, "should in this critical period stand firm in its support and constructive re-engagement, and the UN will continue to be by the Iraqis' side in this delicate and challenging transition towards stability."
Electoral assistance has been the "flagship" of the efforts of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) , which is headed by Mr. de Mistura.
He noted that the Mission is assisting Iraqis and the Independent High Electoral Commission - an Iraqi institution responsible for preparing and conducting elections - with a series of electoral events, starting with provincial elections in the immediate future and culminating with parliamentary elections in 2009-2010.
"The forthcoming elections are rightly viewed as an opportunity to establish a more inclusive sectarian balance and shape a new political landscape and are the most significant political event in the coming months," he said.
"It is therefore all the more important to ensure that they be perceived as free and fair, and that the Iraqis, with the support of the United Nations and the international community, be able to ensure respect of operational timelines, with an IHEC free of political pressure," he added.
UNAMI played a vital role in supporting the passage in September of the country's electoral law, as well as the subsequent amendment providing for minority representation in Iraq.
"Although the adopted amendment to the electoral law did not reflect entirely UNAMI's formulation of numbers it includes some of its elements. Its adoption by majority open vote witnessed democracy in action and contributes to furthering respect for human rights and democracy in Iraq," Mr. de Mistura noted.
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, the Special Representative pointed out that Iraqis will have quite a number of elections ahead of them in the coming year. But "ballots are much better than bullets," he stressed.
He reiterated that there has been a "substantial" improvement in security in recent months. "Otherwise we would not be able to even think about having elections next year, and we are seriously planning for that," he said.
In addition to assisting the preparations for elections, UNAMI has also been laying the seeds for a resolution to disputed internal boundaries, supporting the national development strategies and facilitating Iraq's partnership with the international community and its neighbours.
"The past year was dedicated to identifying opportunities in priority areas most likely to yield timely results; the next year will be the time to consolidate the progress that has been made," Mr. de Mistura said in his briefing to the Council.