Iraqi parliament delayed

BAGHDAD – More than six months ago,
millions of Iraqis cast aside fears about bombs and bullets to vote. In
households without a reliable supply of water, the indelible purple ink on the
voters’ index fingers did not wear off for more than a week.

The voters have since watched winter
turn to spring, and now summer become fall – and the people they elected still
have no leader. They are waiting on their parties to come to an agreement so
they can start work.

And while the summer months were
marked by a surge in violence and by riots over the lack of electricity,
drinking water and other basic services, in Baghdad, members of parliament have
lived out a workers’ fantasy: a vacation of more than 200 days (and counting),
with full pay and benefits, free to do their heart’s desire.

Since the March 7 election, they have
met just once, and that was for less than 19 minutes.

In the interim, some have sought out
less chaotic places with better weather and less bloodshed, staying in nice
hotels or private homes with chlorinated swimming pools in Jordan, Syria, Iran
or Dubai.

A few have sat home and stewed.

Others have reconnected with family,
undergone medical procedures in countries with better-equipped hospitals, or
gone to weddings and funerals they would otherwise have missed.

More than a dozen members interviewed
say they have been assiduously following news on television and in the papers
on sporadic talks between parties to form a coalition government. There has
been much news, they agree, but little progress.

The energy and optimism with which
these would-be reformers rode into Baghdad after the March 7 election has all
but vanished. It has been replaced by feelings of embarrassment, frustration
and anger.

“I’m representing the Iraqi people,
but it doesn’t feel like it,” said Kadhim Jwad, a Sadrist elected to represent
Babil province in the country’s south. “I’m at the boiling point. I’m tired and
annoyed all the time. There’s lots of pressure on me. This is more than I can
take.”

Ayad Samarrai, the speaker of Iraq’s
last functioning parliament – a body whose trademark lassitude led the public
to vote a good many of them out of office in March (though Samarrai was
re-elected) – said feelings of melancholy were not uncommon among his
colleagues.

“Not having a session has created a
state of psychological emptiness,” among those elected, he said. “They feel
useless. They were ready to participate. They were ambitious, ready to make
change. And of course, that motivation has now been stopped entirely.”

A salve for their ennui, however, has
been their compensation: salaries of about $11,050 a month each, which include
a housing allowance; a fleet of three brand-new armored sport utility vehicles
and a 30-member security detail for their use; freshly issued diplomatic
passports, which allow for worry-free international travel; and government
payments into pension plans that will yield 80 percent of their salaries. A
bank was recently set up inside the parliament building so that checks can be
cashed without fuss.

In the meantime, one in four Iraqis
are estimated to live below the poverty line. Leila Hassan, a newly elected
member, said, “I get embarrassed when people ask me, ‘What’s going on?’ and
when I go out, I feel shy because I’m worried people will blame me.”

Hassan said she had  taken courses on democracy with other women
elected to parliament, which has taken them to the United States and Lebanon.

Mahmoud Othman, also a member of the
Kurdish Alliance, said he had been fighting the doldrums by showing up at
parliament in spite of himself. He has found himself feeling even more
isolated.

“I keep coming to the building, but I
am all alone,” he said. “I find no one. Sometimes, there are journalists so I
do an interview with them, and sometimes I see friends here, but nothing very
useful.”

Fatah al-Ashikh, a member of the
Iraqiya political slate, who represents Baghdad, said the hiatus had given him
the chance to work on his doctorate in media studies.

“I am using this useless time to do
something that will help me in the future,” he said.

He has also broken in his new
official passport.

Unadim Kana, an independent who
represents Christians in Nineveh province in Iraq’s north, said he too had been
“able to travel freely,” but said he would be happy to dispense with that new
freedom if he were allowed to work.

“We have lost seven months of
possibility,” he said.

“Not having a session has created a
state of psychological emptiness,” among those elected. They feel useless. They
were ready to participate.” Ayad Samarrai,member of Iraqi parliament.