Iraq parliament passes budget, signaling progress

The move came one day after the parliament's speaker threatened to dissolve the body for 'ineptitude.'

Iraq's parliamentarians passed three laws Wednesday – including the highly significant 2008 budget – just one day after the body's speaker threatened to dissolve it for what he described as ineptitude.

The move comes days after the visit of US Defense Secretary Robert Gates and amid tremendous pressures on Iraqi politicians to pass key legislation to bolster security gains by contributing to stability, reconciliation among feuding factions, and economic growth.

"The most important thing is that we passed the budget," says Jawad Ridha Taqi, a deputy from the main Shiite bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) of which Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is a member. "Now the government can begin spending on much-needed projects."

Although passing the budget and other legislation offers some reprieve to the struggling government of Prime Minister Maliki, they raise several question marks.

It was a victory for Kurds, who have been pushing hard to get 17 percent of this year's $48 billion budget because of their "historic deprivation."

But this quota applies only for this year; after that, the share of the national budget going to Kurdistan, a semiautonomous region, will have to be based on its population, as is the case now with other provinces, says Mr. Taqi. This will be tied to holding a controversial national census, he adds. That is needed because the Kurds are adamant about putting the fate of the contested city of Kirkuk to a referendum by June.

"It would be more accurate to say it's our fair share," says Handreen Ahmed, editor of Rikay Kurdistan, a main daily in Kurdistan, commenting on the passage of the budget.

Deputies also agreed before adjourning for a month-long recess on a law to regulate the powers of provincial and local governments. Taqi says this law does not meet the aspirations of his party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), which wants greater powers for the provinces and the creation of a Shiite region in the south similar to what Kurds have in the north. He says it was always possible that this law might be amended in the future.

The bloc of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a rival of ISCI, scored a victory by having an article in the law stipulating that provincial elections be held before Oct. 1.

Qusay Abdul-Wahab, a Sadrist deputy, says early elections are favorable to both Sadrists and the "awakening" movement of Sunni tribes in Anbar Province, who feel they are not properly represented. "This will redraw the political map and restore balance," he says.

The last piece of legislation was a limited amnesty for those in Iraqi prisons, who number about 24,000, according to the Ministry of Human Rights. The Sunni bloc of Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi is demanding this, among 11 demands, in exchange for the return of Sunnis to Maliki's government, which they have boycotted since August. The law would not cover the nearly equal number of prisoners held at US-run facilities in Iraq.

In its current form, the law has so many exceptions that it is meaningless, say many parliamentarians. "I concluded when I read the law that only innocent people should be amnestied," says Izzat Shabender, a secular Shiite deputy. "The irony is that the government should apologize to those held unjustly, not offer them amnesty."

There are allegations also that many detainees are being held on forged charges or confessions extracted under duress.

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