Despite Security Gains, Iraqi Government Paralyzed
Improvements in security in Iraq have not been matched by political progress. Despite the drop in violence, government officials still hunker down in the Green Zone, fearing for their lives. Despite U.S. pressure, none of the benchmark laws cited by President Bush last year has been passed.
Reconciliation efforts, which the U.S. military has fostered at the local level, have not been matched at the national level, where political battles continue to paralyze the government.
No one has anything good to say about the current Iraqi government. Not even Barham Salih, the deputy prime minister.
"I think we do have a very serious political crisis in this country. We need to do a lot better in terms of bringing about the political environment that can sustain these security gains," he says. "Iraq is in need of an exceptionally qualified, capable government. My government, the government of which I am part of, leaves a lot to be desired. A country like Iraq cannot be run like this."
What was billed as a national unity government has fractured. Sectarian and political fights over power have left one-third of the government's ministries leaderless — with resulting chaos.
Kassim Daood, a member of parliament with the ruling Shiite coalition, says it's the United States, not the Iraqi government, that has improved security. He says Iraqi Sunnis turned against al-Qaida not because of anything the government did, but because al-Qaida overplayed its hand and the U.S. stepped in to help Sunnis now willing to battle insurgents.
"We need badly the engagement of the government. Probably we may lose now the momentum," he says. "For the time being, I am [calling] it cease-fire; I'm not calling [it] a real reconciliation. If you want me to call it a real reconciliation, I would like to see the fingerprint of the government on this process."
U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker says the government must do more to reassure Sunnis who have turned on al-Qaida — and one way is to provide jobs.
"We'll do job creation for a while, but the Iraqi government — as it will have to do in a number of other areas — is going to have to pick up the larger and larger share of this as we move ahead," Crocker says.
The U.S. military has been busy getting Sunni and Shiite leaders to work together at the local level, but Crocker acknowledges that this has not been replicated by Iraqi officials at the national level.
"That's got to happen or nothing good is coming down the line," he says.
Seeing Obstacles to Progress
Daood, the MP, doesn't see any hope of progress as long as Nouri al-Maliki remains prime minister. He says Maliki is dangerously sectarian and the government is clinically dead. He is exasperated with the Bush administration's continued support for Maliki.
"Basically, we cannot improve it without changing the government itself. When we want to start any initiative regarding this, we immediately [receive] one of these statements from your president saying that 'I'm supporting Maliki.' And this is ... really frustrating us," he says.
Charles Tripp, an Iraq specialist at London University, says the current chaos serves the interest of many and may well continue for a long time.
"There is an array of characters and parties and personalities and factions who are not discontented with the relative powerlessness and loss of authority of Maliki himself," Tripp says. "It doesn't do much for national government, but it allows a lot of people to line their own nests, develop their own militias, create their local power bases, insert themselves into forms of power in Iraq."
It's not just the executive branch that is a problem. The Iraqi parliament doesn't get a passing grade either: For the past month, it didn't muster a quorum.
In a rare public interference in politics, the leading Shiite religious figure in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, refused to bless parliamentarians who recently went on the pilgrimage to Mecca, declaring that they had more important things to do at home.
Government Paralysis Leads to Frustration, Despair
At Baghdad's social services office, displaced Iraqis are united in one thing: despair. The halls are crowded with the poor and the homeless. Hassan Abbass Shaker, an unemployed father of nine, has come again and again, only to be turned away each time.
"We risked our lives to vote for this government," he says. "Even if someone couldn't walk, he crawled to cast his vote. We hoped this government could achieve justice, but all they do is collect huge salaries."
American Col. Ricky Gibbs, in charge of southwest Baghdad, is just as frustrated. He says he's ready to tear his hair out — this coming from a no-nonsense, crew-cut officer. He has tried to get a senior official from the health ministry to come to his area, but despite repeated efforts, no one has turned up.
"Now, I need to get that guy in here because I have three hospitals we need to open," Gibbs says. "And I have tried at every level that I know of, from my Army chain of command through driving up there and meeting with people in the vice president's office, saying I need this guy, and he hasn't shown up yet. I've told them, 'I will come pick you up in my armored vehicles.'"
Government corruption is a major problem, and benchmark laws on de-Baathification, oil and provincial powers have stalled over lack of consensus on what kind of country Iraq should be. There is no agreement on what Americans might call state's rights. The absence of these laws means it's not clear what levels of government are responsible for what. And as long as these laws are not passed, it is unlikely there will be local elections, which Crocker believes are critical to providing local credibility and stability.
"It's probably going to be fairly important to have elections, say, within the coming year, as a means of, you know, regulating this competition," Crocker says.
'Americans Are the Government'
In the meantime, Gibbs says people he meets tell him the Americans are the government for now.
"We're that link until the government stands up," he says. "And the people see us. You go over in East Rasheed, and they told Gen. [David] Petraeus, they say the Americans are the government. We are delivering the services."
But American forces can't do everything. After five years, no one is meeting the expectations of Iraqis. And just as no one has anything good to say about the government, many Iraqis still blame the U.S. for their problems.
At the social services office, Iraqis are just as critical of the Americans as they are of the Iraqi government. Iraqis there say that, given its huge power, the United States must be deliberately undermining Iraq. But for all its effort to push the process, the Bush administration seems powerless to get timely results from the Iraqi government.
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