BAGHDAD, IRAQ, May 2007
Four years after George Bush declared an end to ‘major combat operations in Iraq’ its parliamentary democracy is barely functioning. Members of the 275 member parliament face constant threats. No substantive legislation has been passed, but it has debated an international agreement on olive farming. The success of Iraq’s parliament is crucial if the country is to ever function on its own.
‘The Ministry of Defence has taken our building’, said Dr Mahmud Al Mashhadani, speaker of Iraq’s parliament, ‘and I want it back.’
He was about to carry on when a screaming alarm interrupted him. Two huge armed body guards set it off by walking in front of us through an airport-style security scanner. The speaker’s entourage stretched back for yards, may-be fifty of us, squashed in a windowless corridor heading towards the parliamentary chamber. In the short distance from his office, we all had to be checked again and again.
‘How can they call themselves the Iraqi Ministry of Defence,’ Dr Mashhadani continued as we got clear, ‘when they’re protected by the Americans in the Green Zone. What does that tell us about the people who are meant to be defending us..’
Dr Mashhadani is a compact, but authoritative figure. He speaks while running worry beads through his fingers, and doesn’t hide his frustration in his job – making Iraq’s embryonic parliament actually work so that democracy can take root.
The chamber itself is a makeshift conference hall. As the Speaker peeled away I asked one MP. ‘What’s the schedule today?’
‘We never know, until we actually get here,’ he shrugged.
On one seat lay a wreath for an MP who died last month when a suicide bomber blew up the cafeteria just outside the chamber. We were shown to the back. Water leaked down on us from the ceiling. Then, moving seats, my interpreter ended up on a broken chair that toppled him onto the floor.
The parliament is just over a year old, with 275 MPs who are elected because of their race, tribe or culture. The concept of voting for politicians because they can get a road fixed or a school built hasn’t yet percolated here.
For Iraqis ever to run their own country effectively, parliament has to prove it can do its job.
On the list of new laws which need to be passed is one on how oil revenue should be shared. Another is about pensions and a key one for reconciliation – whether Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party officials should be given jobs back in the government. But none of that was being debated.
On the podium was a female MP who sits on the parliamentary health committee. Campaigning for better hospitals was not on her agenda. Dressed head to toe in black, she was lambasting President Bush – whom she described as the big, evil man and compared him to the one-eyed anti-christ.
You, Bush, planted violence, hatred, rancour and conflict in the whole world, she was saying, and it turned out she was reading a letter from her cousin, the powerful, young Shia cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr. He’s actually wanted for murder and his Mehdi Army militia – among other things – attack British troops in southern Iraq.
Next to a special meeting with speaker Mashhadani to decide on who should chair which parliamentary committee. About forty MPs were there at a wrap around conference table and the Dr Mashhadani took his seat under a broken digital clock. The meeting didn’t last long. Shouting erupted. Hands slapped the table top. Papers were waved, and Dr Mashhadani soon walked out, gripping his worry beads.
‘What was that about?’ I asked Yonnadam Kann, a civil engineer who chairs the reconstruction committee. He shook his head. ‘I am sorry to say that the culture of this country isn’t the culture of democracy,’ he said. ‘People just use democracy as a slogan to try to get power.’
On the way back, I stopped by a shop where engineers were fixing air-conditioners. ‘What do you think of the parliament?’ I asked one of them.
‘I don’t trust them,’ he said. ‘They support terrorism, steal money, and…’
His next words were drowned out by two American helicopters flying loud and low overhead. Then the people around the shop went tense as a military convoy approached. It was carrying huge concrete blocks to stop car bombs. The soldier in the lead armoured vehicle had swung the machine gun towards us while they passed. I hadn’t noticed. But the engineers had.
I asked the same question to a university graduate who scraped a living as a computer technician. ‘Parliament,’ he said disdainfully. ‘Democracy is meant to give you the ability to change things. No-one here has that.’
‘How does the new Iraq work then?’
‘You get a threat or someone close to you gets kidnapped. You pay the ransom. You give your house keys to your neighbour, and you leave.’
‘Has that actually happened to you?’
‘My cousin was killed by a suicide bomber,’ he said dead-pan. ‘She was 22, studying economics at university. Death squads murdered two other cousins. My family escaped to Jordan. I’m waiting to go.’
He lowered his head for a second, then looked up sharply, managing a laugh. ‘You know what Iraqi’s say. Be nice to the Americans or they’ll punish you with democracy.’