Political wrangling still stands in way of Iraq meeting major benchmarks

Iraq's fragmented leadership is struggling to meet the major benchmarks that it has pledged to the United States to achieve soon, with political wrangling and a chaotic legislature standing in the way.

The issue took on new urgency last week when House Democrats drafted legislation that would require President Bush to certify by July 1 and again by Oct. 1 whether the Iraqi government is making progress on security, an oil plan and constitutional amendments.

Even if the Democratic proposals never make it through Congress, pressure is mounting for the Iraqis to meet a timetable or risk losing U.S. troops and support.

But the Iraqis face a host of stumbling blocks that go to the heart of the crisis.

And recent talk of changes in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government may just increase the paralysis as groups maneuver for power.

Iraq missed the Dec. 31 target dates to enact laws establishing provincial elections, regulating distribution of the country's oil wealth and reversing measures that have excluded many Sunnis from jobs and government positions because they belonged to Saddam Hussein's Baath party.

The U.S. is also pushing for constitutional amendments to remove articles which the Sunnis believe discriminate in favor of the Shiites and Kurds.

U.S officials also want Iraqis to pass a bill to set new elections for provincial governments to encourage greater public participation at the grass roots level.

So far, the only success has been a new oil law, which al-Maliki's Cabinet endorsed on Feb. 26 and sent to parliament for approval. Leaders of all main political blocs have pledged to support the bill, which lays down rules for negotiating contracts and distributing the revenues among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.

But parliament has not taken up the measure yet, and the deputy speaker told The Associated Press that the draft may have to be sent back to the Cabinet because al-Maliki's staff skipped some legal steps in endorsing it the first time.

Likewise, the bill on provincial elections is bogged down in procedural matters. The measure is designed to redress problems caused when the Sunnis boycotted the January 2005 election, which provincial councils were chosen.

That resulted in Shiites winning power in some areas with Sunni majorities. Shiite lawmakers are not anxious to give up those gains.

Legislation to relax the ban on former Baath party members holding government jobs or elective office faces an even tougher road.

Shiites and Kurds, who suffered the most under Saddam's Sunni-dominated regime, are reluctant to reinstate thousands of members of the party responsible.

The government provides most jobs here, and the ban effectively deprives thousands of former Baath members of a livelihood. Many are Sunnis, and the U.S. believes the current rules are driving Sunnis into the insurgency.

The main Sunni bloc in parliament wants the rules loosened so that thousands of lower-ranking party members can get their jobs back.

Ali al-Lami, executive-secretary of the government committee that screens former party members, told the AP that the factions reached a broad compromise during a meeting Feb. 28, whereby the number of Baath members under the ban would be cut by more than half.

Other former party members would be offered reinstatement or retirement with pensions, he said. Al-Lami said al-Maliki had endorsed the compromise.

But that's no guarantee of swift passage. Many Shiite and Kurdish lawmakers hold strong personal views on the issue, and most of the 275 parliament members have not seen details of the compromise since the legislature adjourned for a month in early February.

It was to have reconvened last Tuesday, but only a handful of members showed up and the session was rescheduled for this week.

Kurdish legislator Mahmoud Othman said opinion among rank-and-file lawmakers was still divided, the AP says.

Othman said he hoped that both the oil bill and changes in the Baath membership ban would be approved by July when parliament begins its summer recess.

"I think the issue of the constitutional review would take a longer time because all political groups and parties, not parliament only, are involved in this sticking issue that might shape and determine the future and the destiny of this country," Othman said.

The Shiites and Kurds agreed to consider amendments so that Sunni politicians would endorse a vote on the constitution, but the Sunnis are demanding are the very changes that the Shiites and Kurds have fought hard to prevent, and neither side shows much sign of backing down.

The Baghdad security operation now under way may have complicated things.

Al-Maliki, under U.S. pressure to rein in Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, has moved to reduce al-Sadr's influence in his government. Al-Maliki's announcement of an imminent Cabinet reshuffle has set off a new round of power-playing that could slow the legislative process and make approval of benchmarks hostage to promises of power or patronage.

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