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Iraqi lawmakers are MIA

Times Staff Writer

Missing from Thursday’s session of the Iraqi parliament were about half of the members, including the speaker, the former speaker and two former prime ministers.

Also missing: a sense of urgency.

American officials have been pressing Iraqi leaders to prove their commitment to ending sectarian strife by enacting landmark legislation before mid-September, when the Bush administration is to present its next report on Iraq to Congress.

But even as parliament’s monthlong August break approaches, key issues aren’t being discussed. Quorums are marginal, or fleeting.

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Despite the high stakes here, the Iraqi parliament appears to be deliberating at a pace to rival plodding legislative bodies around the world.

Thursday’s session, the 50th of the year, convened half an hour late.

A bell rang in the Convention Center in the fortified Green Zone reminding members to take their seats and raise their hands for roll call (the electronic system is broken). It showed 145 in attendance. That dropped to 137 as some members walked out after the first vote. The speaker on occasion has dismissed parliament for falling below the quorum of 100 legislators, but on Thursday, they proceeded. The opening Muslim prayer and 275-name roll call took half an hour, a quarter of the time, in what turned out to be a roughly two-hour session.

Those present circulated an agenda of 11 items, none related to the legislation Washington has been demanding, including laws concerning oil investment and revenue-sharing between regions, reintegrating former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime into government, disarming militias and holding provincial elections. Some members say the modest agendas at recent meetings are a symptom of parliament’s inability to overcome sectarian divisions and cobble together the two-thirds majority needed to pass major legislation.

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“There’s a deficit in our performance, both in quantity and quality, especially when it comes to [passing] legislation. The fact of the matter is our will is big, but our action is too little,” said Saleem Abdullah, a member of the Sunni Tawafiq parliamentary bloc who missed Thursday’s session due to other official business. “It will affect the [American] view of the success of the political process in Iraq.

“It will show there haven’t been any achievements in the political process.”

The parliament is under pressure from Washington and from Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki to work through the rest of the summer. But after sacrificing one month of vacation in July, and shifting from three- to six-day workweeks, many are unwilling to give up their August break.

“The prime minister cannot simply will something to be done -- each bloc has its views and the prime minister has enormous challenges,” a senior U.S. Embassy officer said Thursday. “He is frustrated, as are we.”

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Maliki’s spokesman, Ali Dabbagh, blamed legislative delays on tension between political blocs in parliament and the Cabinet. Legislators aligned with the largest Sunni bloc on Wednesday suspended its participation in the Cabinet, stalling a portion of the oil legislation, he said.

Still, President Bush remained upbeat Thursday about Iraqi lawmakers’ efforts.

They have “passed quite a few pieces of legislation and they’re trying to work through their differences,” Bush said in Philadelphia. “Sometimes legislative bodies aren’t real smooth in getting out a piece of legislation in a timely fashion, as some of you might recognize, but nevertheless, they’re working hard learning what it means to have a parliament that functions.”

Thursday’s session began in earnest with members congratulating the Iraqi soccer team on its victory Wednesday over South Korea in the semifinals of the Asian Cup. One member mocked South Korea as a “paper tiger.” Another chided him, saying sports should unite not divide countries. That ate up about 10 minutes. Then the sports committee chairman took the podium and chastised the lawmakers.

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“Our team promised us they would win. Where are the politicians who promised us electricity and cold water?” said Hassan Othman.

No one responded.

Instead, two lawmakers began complaining about U.S. military operations this week in the west Baghdad neighborhood of Amil and in Husseiniya, about 20 miles north of the capital, where witnesses said an American airstrike left 18 dead.

A member of the Sunni Tawafiq political bloc proposed adding an item to the agenda: negotiating cellphone contracts for overseas companies in Iraq. Members voted to consider the contracts at a later session.

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Then they moved on to the next item: a motion of no confidence in ethics commission chairman Radhi Radhi, who many say is being targeted because of his pursuit of corrupt officials. It was the fifth time it had been listed on the agenda, and on Thursday, members again postponed a vote.

Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish independent, said parliament’s unwillingness to tackle such controversial issues has lead many members to stay home in silent protest. Some lawmakers may also be worried about their safety, after a bombing in the parliament cafeteria in April killed Mohammed Awad and injured at least 22.

“Some have not come since the first session,” Othman said Thursday at the Convention Center, which houses the parliament. “The things discussed are not serious, so people think ‘Why should we come?’ ”

Parliament members, who receive a $65,000 annual salary and $8,300 a month for up to 20 bodyguards, are fined about $415 a day for being absent.

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Some lawmakers have proposed legislation to force political blocs to send substitutes for members who don’t attend. Parliament was supposed to consider the issue Thursday, but postponed the discussion.

Samya Aziz Mohammed spent the end of Thursday’s session discussing wrongs committed against fellow Failis, Shiite Kurds in Baghdad and Diyala persecuted under Hussein’s regime. By 2 p.m., many members had left to talk to Arabic-language TV stations or returned to their committee offices.

“Everyone says this is an important issue, why don’t you discuss it,” Muhammad said to the half-empty room. “Now the parliament is not listening to me.”

Outside, Osama Nujaifi, a secular Shiite lawmaker, told TV reporters that he opposed the oil legislation and the U.S. insistence on setting parliament’s agenda. Even if parliament eventually passes the benchmark legislation, it won’t signal progress, Nujaifi said. It will simply show Washington’s ability to railroad measures through a legislature full of polarized politicians.

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“We are in need of a new parliament because this parliament is not going to solve Iraq’s problems,” Nujaifi said, calling for U.S.-style elections in which voters choose candidates instead of political slates that win a number of seats.

Just as Nujaifi finished speaking at 2:20 p.m. and parliament was about to move to agenda item No. 8 -- a vote on banning chemical weapons -- the acting speaker, First Deputy Speaker Khalid Atiya, decided to adjourn until Saturday afternoon, just three days before the August break is due to begin.

No votes had been taken, no legislation passed.

Moments later, Othman, the Kurdish lawmaker, could be found pacing downstairs in the Convention Center lobby.

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Although he is frustrated with the lack of progress in parliament, he said, U.S. pressure would not make Iraqi lawmakers move any faster. Real action on benchmark legislation won’t come until September, at the earliest, he predicted, and probably would be driven by deals hashed out in private by Cabinet and party bloc leaders, not legislators resistant to change.

“The Americans don’t understand,” he said. “The more they insist, the more there will be opposition and we will never pass it.”

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molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

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Times staff writers Raheem Salman and Said Rifai contributed to this report.


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