A government hampered by its suspicions

Times Staff Writer

When the Ministry of Municipalities and Public Works dispatched crews to the Amil neighborhood last month to repair a sewer line that had been spewing raw human waste into the street for weeks, residents were encouraged.

But instead of repairing the pipe, the workers wound up rupturing the freshwater line. They left the entire mess for someone else.

Iraqis elected their leaders in December, hoping that a government by the people would do something for the people. Eleven months later, officials acknowledge that their efforts have been mostly a failure. And, as with the busted sewer line of Amil, government involvement often creates a bigger problem than it solves.


Despite U.S. pressure for results, Iraq’s elected officials have been unable to overcome their mistrust of one another and improve security or tackle the major political and economic issues -- from murderous cops to the sewage woes of Amil.

Fed up with ministers he says were foisted on him by political factions, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has promised a Cabinet reshuffle. He is scheduled to convene the body this week to address the deepening political divisions and a threatened walkout by the Sunni Arab bloc.

But his resolve may not be enough to overcome the government’s inherent frailties and limitations.

Officials say Baghdad’s authority has been undermined by the ubiquity of U.S. troops and by militias, neither of which answers to the government.

But above all, the sectarian balance on which the government was formed has made it impossible make big decisions or ferret out corruption or incompetence.

“If Maliki discovered that one of his ministers in one of the political parties was involved in corruption or brutality, he could not fire him, because [the minister is] backed up by another political party,” said Salim Abdullah Jabouri, a spokesman for Iraq’s main Sunni party, which is part of the ruling coalition. “He’ll be accused of going against [the] minister’s party.”


The government even backtracked on its controversial decision to issue an arrest warrant for the country’s leading Sunni cleric, Harith Dhari, amid threats that the Sunni coalition would pull out of the government.

Some blame U.S. policy, saying it puts too much faith on consensus and balance as a panacea for Iraq’s ills.

Iraq’s constitution -- with its complex system of checks and balances and stripped-down executive authority -- limits what any leader can do.

The government “has been created by political agreements giving every side a veto against the other side,” said Abbas Bayati, a Shiite lawmaker.

At every crossroads, the government’s large Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish blocs huddle noisily to come up with internal agreement before heading to the negotiating table to squabble again with the other factions. Insiders say little gets discussed in Maliki’s Cabinet without the approval of each party in the three sprawling blocs.

At the ministry level, a raft of corruption cases has struck fear in the hearts of administrators, who allow money to pile up rather than become entangled in a graft case. “There is an ambience where people are afraid of making decisions,” an official said.


Even when decisions are made, there is no oversight to make sure follow-up action is taken, nor any coordination among ministries.

“The government plays like a football team,” said Mustafa Hiti, a Sunni lawmaker. “Even if [Oil Minister Hussein] Shahristani is good, you need another ministry of transportation, interior and housing to do their job in order for him to be effective.”

U.S. efforts to get institutions up and running have been hampered by the crudest of stumbling blocks. For example, American troops recently visited a west Baghdad courthouse, where the road leading to the decrepit four-story building was flooded with sewage and the court had run out of diesel to fuel its generator.

Based on his most recent remarks, including a frustrated speech to parliament this month, Maliki appears to have recognized the problems. But many say it may be too late, that even the finest government officials can’t enforce good policy with a weak government.

Month after month, Maliki has promised to disarm and disband the Shiite militias wreaking havoc on the streets. Sunnis say the government has not done enough -- failing, for example, to follow up on leads from those freed after men dressed in police uniforms brazenly kidnapped dozens of people from a Ministry of Higher Education building last week.

“The government hasn’t moved a finger to investigate,” Jabouri said. “The government is either weak or in collusion with the kidnappers or has lost control of the militias.”


Maliki’s credibility had already been faltering, officials said.

“I think the government is seen as representing one part of Iraqi society,” said a Western analyst in Baghdad, who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

“When the Sunnis under Saddam [Hussein] dominated Iraq, they also represented one segment of the society, but they had an overwhelming force to back that up. These guys don’t. There are other forces out there.”

Times staff writers Doug Smith and Louise Roug contributed to this report.