In Iraq, a parliament in disarray

The response to last week's bomb attack underscored that the 275-member body is stymied by partisan divides that undermine hopes for political progress.

The stunning breach in security at Baghdad's heavily guarded Green Zone last week killed one Sunni lawmaker and, in the aftermath, revealed an increasingly disoriented and dysfunctional Iraqi government.

Lawmakers met the day after a suicide bomber blew himself up in the cafeteria at the parliament building. Their meeting was intended to be an opportunity for solidarity and an act of defiance in the face of the threat to their institution and their personal safety.

But, rather, Friday's session, and the political finger-pointing over the weekend, painted a picture of disarray.

Many analysts say that Thursday's attack will only serve to further isolate the 275-member parliament from the people who elected it in December 2005. Already, the government is seen by many here to be too mired in sectarian bickering and personal animosities to operate as a functioning government.

"A lot of Iraqis now are biting their fingers in regret because they voted these people in. Most [parliamentarians] have no real base of support and command little respect," says an Iraqi analyst who has been following the workings of parliament since its inception.

He says the institution has rendered itself irrelevant largely due to the "incompetence and inexperience" of its members.

While Iraqis have indeed expressed disappointment with the progress being seen inside government, the lack of significant headway is also frustrating American efforts. The US plan to secure Baghdad, and the success of President Bush's new strategy in Iraq, have been tied to political "benchmarks."

In January, when Mr. Bush announced the new plan in Iraq, he said that the US would hold the government "to the benchmarks that it has announced." Those include: passing legislation to share oil revenues, spending $10 billion on reconstruction, planning for provincial elections, and reforming de-Baathification laws.

The government has made little visible progress on any of those benchmarks.

It did, however, meet earlier this month in a session closed to the media to discuss a bill that would grant the speaker of parliament a salary equivalent to that of Iraq's president. News of such meetings only adds to the common Iraqi sentiment that its parliament is completely disconnected from reality outside the Green Zone.

Already, says the Iraqi analyst, members of parliament (MPs) are paid between $10,000 to $15,000 a month, receive a generous allowance for any trip they make outside Iraq, as well as other perks and benefits such as fuel to operate their generators and an allowance for personal security. He says many of them have amassed personal fortunes and have bought homes and started businesses in Arab and European capitals.

In comparison, an average Iraqi who may have served the state for 30 years struggles to make ends meet on a pension of $100 to $200 a month, he says.

The analyst says the problems of the Iraqi parliament can be traced to the fact that the dominant blocs were only able to win by appealing to voters' sectarian and ethnic affiliations.

The heated exchanges at the meeting Friday illustrated the sectarian divide in parliament.

Mustafa al-Hiti of the National Dialogue Front (NDF), the Sunni bloc to which the killed parliamentarian Mohammed Awadh belonged, spoke about a "conspiracy" by other government organs to weaken parliament and target Sunni lawmakers. Hassan al-Shimmari of the Shiite Fadhila Islamic party, which recently broke ranks with the dominant Shiite United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) bloc, demanded better security for the building and "more respect" for MPs.

Nassar Al-Rubaie from the group loyal to radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr berated his colleagues for not having the courage "to hold the US occupation forces responsible for the attack," since they were chiefly in charge of the Green Zone's security.

The Sadrists, who are part of the UIA bloc, had just returned to parliament in February following a two-month boycott that had left the institution in virtual limbo.

Sheikh Jalaleddin al-Saghir, a Shiite cleric and lawmaker from the UIA who was reached by telephone Friday night, says the attack should be "a wake-up call" to Sunni Arab politicians that they are as much of a target of Al Qaeda and other Sunni extremists groups as the Shiites.

Sheikh Saghir, who was feet from the blast and survived unscathed, says he was sure that one of the bodyguards of a Sunni MP carried out the attack, while the vest and explosives were smuggled in by employees of the catering company that ran the cafeteria.

"I had a bad feeling when we switched the caterer from someone we trusted to another that employed people that came from a milieu dominated by Al Qaeda," says Saghir, insinuating that most of the employees of the new caterer were Sunnis.

Sunni MP Saleh al-Mutlaq, who heads the NDF, said from Amman that the only solution to solving the government's problems is to start with new elections without the interference of religious parties.

But Zaki Chehab, political editor at the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper, says that this would be a recipe for another cycle of bloodshed.

"There is a huge gap now between the MPs and their constituencies. The problem is that the Americans have no plan 'B' and must rely on these people to make it happen," he says.

The next elections are scheduled for January 2009.

Amir Taheri, another London-based analyst and journalist, says MPs should display a greater sense of urgency but that "they have done a good job so far, considering the circumstances."

"It's a good sign to see Iraqis complain about their MPs. That's what happens in a democracy," he says.

Saghir says the problem is that most Iraqis "do not understand how parliaments work and are not used to debate and direct confrontation."

Now, parliamentarian Thafer al-Ani told his colleagues on Friday, "We need courageous decisions in which compromises are made not for each other, but for Iraq. People have to feel we represent them."

And one lawmaker, Nada Abdullah al-Jubouri, who was rushed to a US military-run hospital inside the Green Zone after Thursday's attack, had this to say: "It's about time for all of us as representatives of the people to think for one moment of the Iraqi people who are wounded and killed and who have no access to the medical care we received at the Ibn Sina hospital at the hands of US doctors."

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