Iraqi parliament's political stalemate prompts a holiday for all

By Damien Cave  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , AMMAN

Thu, Aug 09, 2007 - Page 9

Saleh al-Mutlak, a senior Sunni leader in Iraq's parliament, is spending his summer vacation in Amman at a well-appointed apartment that his wife and son moved into last year.

Lighting a cigarette on his patio, near a small garden of pink roses, he acknowledged breathing easier in a place where loud explosions are caused by fireworks, not bombs.

But like scores of other Iraqi lawmakers passing the time during their controversial monthlong recess, al-Mutlak played down the joys of escape. He said he would abstain from dinners out or trips to movie theaters. When a member of his political bloc was seen on television celebrating with Iraqi soccer players at a five-star hotel in downtown Amman, he immediately ordered him to leave.

"Our people are suffering," he said. "We should not be enjoying ourselves."

On that, both Iraqi and US officials agree. Less clear is whether parliament's decision to take this month off should be considered a vital contributor to Iraq's political stalemate or the product of a more ominous breakdown.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and several members of Congress already have expressed disappointment with Iraq's 275 lawmakers for recessing when roughly 160,000 US soldiers are enduring Iraq's blast-furnace summer to secure the country -- ostensibly to make political progress possible. It did not help that the need for a break was among the only things that the warring factions could agree on.

And many have already left. At least 15 Iraqi lawmakers have rushed to more temperate Amman over the past week (some only briefly) and more are coming. Others said they and their colleagues would spend at least part of the break in London, Cairo, Dubai, Damascus, Tehran or at a lake resort in Iraq's safest region, autonomous Kurdistan. Few seemed destined for luxury; in most cases, they said they would be staying with family or attending conferences related to Iraq.

They rejected the idea that they were abandoning their civic duty. Several lawmakers, in interviews across the region, said that their decision to recess was a last resort caused by disagreements among Iraq's party leaders that kept draft laws from being submitted for a vote.

With a mix of self-righteousness, sadness and frustration, they said there was little more they could do: Iraq's government, they said, was a failure and only a major shake-up was likely to get things moving.

"The national unity government is a myth, it's not a reality," said Ayad Allawi, reclining on a couch in his spacious, sand-colored villa in the Rabiya neighborhood of Amman. "The political process is heading nowhere."

Allawi, a secular Shiite, has a vested interest in seeing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki fail; as interim prime minister before the 2005 elections, Allawi considers himself a potential alternative, despite spending much of his time in Jordan rather than Iraq.

Nonetheless, the broader argument against the current government appears to be spreading. A growing number of Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish lawmakers in recent months have complained about the country's obstinate party leaders and the ministries' inability to provide services. Discussions of who might replace al-Maliki have become more common.

Given the deep distrust between political groups -- organized almost exclusively along sectarian lines -- lawmakers said that an extra month of work would have only painted a veneer of productivity over a foundation of dysfunction.

In July, when lawmakers extended their legislative session through the first month of the scheduled recess, "Parliament didn't conduct any useful discussions," said Nasar al-Rubaie, a leader of the bloc loyal to the anti-US Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

August, al-Rubaie suggested, would have been no different. The major party leaders -- including the Kurdish president, Jalal Talabani, the Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi, and al-Maliki, a Shiite -- have not taken the month off. Despite that, there are no signs of a breakthrough on the outstanding proposals covering oil revenues, constitutional reform, provincial elections or other issues.

Some lawmakers like al-Mutlak, leader of the 11-member National Dialogue Front, seem to be edging closer to giving up on the process entirely. In a lengthy interview at his apartment, he called for technocrats to be appointed as Cabinet ministers -- possibly by outside bodies like the UN.

More immediately, lawmakers questioned the US' acceptance of al-Maliki and the other prominent party leaders.

"The Iraqi government has proved it's a failure, but the Americans insist on supporting it," said Mahmoud al-Mashadani, the combative Sunni Arab speaker of parliament who is likely to be replaced soon. "I don't understand it."

When asked repeatedly whether parliament should be held at least partly responsible for Iraq's political crisis, al-Mashadani grew defensive.

"The Americans support only the government, not the parliament," he said. While al-Maliki, officials and party leaders regularly visit Washington, he said, the chairmen of committees on constitutional reform or the other laws that the US has demanded as benchmarks of political progress do not.

"The Americans created a democratic parliament then failed to respect it," he said.

US officials in Baghdad have acknowledged focusing on the leadership, largely because members of parliament rarely vote outside their parties.

US disappointment with parliament's recess stemmed not from the break itself, one official said, but rather what the vacation revealed about Iraq's broader inability to forge a deal.

Lawmakers said they hoped that a month off to let tensions cool in Baghdad would somehow start a turnaround.

Al-Mutlak also said that leaving Baghdad for Amman might help the politicians get along. He said he hoped to meet this month with members of the Shiite Fadhila Party, Allawi's group and other Sunni groups to forge a new coalition that might lead the country.

"In some ways, it's much easier to meet here," he said.

And yet, even on vacation, sectarianism is bubbling up. al-Mutlak, for example, for all his talk of moderation, blamed Kurds and Shiites for Iraq's stalemate, and said his fellow Sunnis would be foolish to compromise with such extremists.

And al-Mashadani, though he said that he would call an emergency session if the party leaders submitted legislation, admitted that he doubted it would happen. Even after parliament returns on Sept. 4, Iraq's political future will remain fractured, he said.

Searching for a metaphor near the end of an interview at the simple Amman apartment he bought four years ago, he lifted a large vase with a gold rim off his dining room table's plastic tablecloth.

"When a vase like this breaks into many pieces, it's very hard to put back together," he said. "Pieces will be missing. It will never be the same."