x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Iraqi leaders ignore armoured car row and go on holiday

MPs' extravagant spending and failure to take action to improve ordinary people's lives fuels resentment and claims of corruption.

A woman stands beside the rubble in the Shiite Zaafaraniya neighbourhood of Baghdad in January, after a suicide bomber detonated an explosive-filled taxi near a funeral procession, killing 31 people.
A woman stands beside the rubble in the Shiite Zaafaraniya neighbourhood of Baghdad in January, after a suicide bomber detonated an explosive-filled taxi near a funeral procession, killing 31 people.

BAGHDAD // Iraq's politicians have hightailed it out of town for a six-week holiday without keeping a promise to cancel a pricey perk - free armoured cars that they approved for themselves in the annual budget.

It is the sort of extravagant action that is fuelling resentment among the struggling Iraqi public, many of whom accuse the country's leaders of being corrupt and only in politics for their own profit.

For months, parliament has failed to restructure the US$100 billion (Dh367bn) budget, which was widely criticised, or pass a list of laws to tackle the country's numerous problems.

"They have not discussed ways of how to improve the lives of people like me," said Ammar Hassan, a college graduate from Karbala who drives a taxi to support himself. "They only think about themselves instead of paying attention to people's welfare."

Mr Hassan, 39, said he earns an average of about $200 (Dh735) each month - a fraction of the monthly $22,500 (Dh82,646) salary paid to each of the 325 politicians in parliament.

"I'm afraid the day will come when lawmakers pass a law imposing taxes on ordinary people's salaries and incomes to cover their own living costs," he said bitterly.

Iraq's government has been rife with corruption going back to the regime of former dictator Saddam Hussein, who hoarded the nation's oil riches for himself and his cronies amid an impoverished public.

Hopes that conditions would dramatically improve as Iraq tried to build a post-Saddam democracy proved overly optimistic, however. A quarter of Iraq's population of 31 million people live in poverty and an estimated 15 per cent are unemployed, according to US data compiled by the Central Intelligence Agency.

Raw sewage runs through the streets in many neighbourhoods, polluting tap water, sickening residents and adding to an overall sense of misery. Many Iraqis only have 12 hours of electricity each day.

By contrast, Iraqi politicians were given a $90,000 (Dh 330,000) stipend for expenses in addition to their monthly salaries when they took office in 2010. And in February, parliament voted to buy $50 million (Dh184m) worth of armoured cars to protect them from insurgent attacks that routinely target officials.

But far more innocent bystanders are killed than government officials in Iraq's still-frequent bombings. The pricey perk enraged the public and the anger was soothed only by sheepish promises to redirect the money to what parliament speaker Osama Al Nujaifi at the time called "more important and vital items for the community."

Since then, however, the politicians have dragged their feet about giving up the cars - and on most other vital legislation.

Lawmaker Mohammed Al Khalidi said the latest plan being considered would let legislators from some of Iraq's most dangerous provinces - Baghdad, Sunni-dominated Anbar and Ninevah, and the sectarian and ethnically divided Diyala - keep the cars.

"Others who live in violence-free areas, such as the self-ruled northern Kurdish region and southern provinces, will not get them," said Mr Al Khalidi.

A member of the Sunni-dominated Iraqiya political bloc, he lives in the northern Ninevah province, a former Al Qaeda bastion and voted to give lawmakers the cars.

But before lawmakers could finalise any changes, parliament began a six-week holiday last week and isn't scheduled to return to Baghdad until June 15.

Baghdad political analyst Hadi Jalo said the politicians probably hoped the public would simply forget about the cars after February's controversy died down.

"This cover-up attempt means that the lawmakers still want these cars," Mr Jalo said. "They are not angels and they want to get everything with financial benefits."

Over the past 18 months, parliament has passed 85 laws. But few of them deal with Iraq's most pressing problems, such as disputed lands in the country's north, power disputes between provinces and the central government, and whether to extend credit to investors seeking to help rebuild the war-torn nation.

Laws that have passed parliament include measures to support small businesses, join international conventions for rights of the handicapped, forge energy agreements between Iraq and the European Union and regulate who gets medals of commendation from the government.

Political wrangling has shelved four hydrocarbon laws that would pave the way towards Iraq producing and exporting more oil and potentially injecting new wealth into the economy. The laws would also regulate the oil industry's growth and create a formula to divide resources and profits among provinces.

Iraq sits on top of the world's fourth largest proven reserves of conventional crude, about 143.1 billion barrels. But the country lacks the necessary systems to produce and export the oil, and has been trying to lure energy investors to help.

In one high-profile oil dispute, Baghdad has blacklisted energy giant ExxonMobil from bidding on new projects as punishment for plans to work in the Kurdish region. That has infuriated Kurdish officials who fear future companies will be reluctant to invest there.

It's that kind of dispute that can't be expected to be solved quickly or easily, said Shiite lawmaker Bahaa Al Araji. "Laws that draw political disputes need more time to be approved," he said.