Plans for vacation roil Iraq debate

Times Staff Writers

The holiday plans of foreign lawmakers are not normally a topic of intense political interest in Washington.

But in a town where the president is known for extended stays at his Texas ranch and Congress shuns longer workweeks, the vacation schedule of lawmakers in Baghdad has suddenly and incongruously moved to the top of the agenda.

At issue is whether the Iraqi parliament will take its regular summer break, a two-month vacation scheduled to begin July 1. If it does, Republican lawmakers have warned that the Iraqis’ recess could cost President Bush support from within his own party at a crucial moment in the war.


The U.S.-backed government in Baghdad “would lose a lot of support here,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, a conservative Republican from Oklahoma who has opposed Democratic attempts to set a deadline for U.S. troop cutbacks in Iraq. “We’re fighting hard. You need to be fighting hard.”

Top administration officials have noted the concern. Vice President Dick Cheney raised the issue in meetings with Iraqi officials in Baghdad on Wednesday, and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates discussed it during his most recent trip to Iraq.

“I’ll be blunt: I told some of the Iraqis with whom I met that we are buying them [time] for political reconciliation, and that every day we buy it with American blood,” Gates said at a Senate hearing Wednesday. “For this group to go out for two months, it would, in my opinion, be unacceptable.”

The political weight that the vacation has taken on irritates some Iraqis and strikes others as odd. Even when it is in session, Iraq’s parliament is hardly a model of legislative efficiency.

The Iraqi parliament normally meets three times a week, on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, but its sessions involve numerous problems that Congress does not face.

This week, Tuesday’s session was canceled because the parliament building’s electricity was out, a result of Baghdad’s chronic power shortages. That meant microphones did not work, the windowless room in which legislators meet was dark, and there was no air-conditioning at a time the outside temperature was rising into the 90s.


Of the 275 lawmakers, 170 were present for the session that never happened. Attendance has been a persistent problem -- reasons for absences range from boycotts to traffic jams caused by suicide bombings and checkpoints. The body managed to hold its session Wednesday.

Asked about the holiday plans at a news conference Sunday, the Iraqi government spokesman, Ali Dabbagh, said the government had no say over what lawmakers did with their summer months.

“It has sovereignty,” he said of the parliament. “It’s up to members. They have to make the call, but of course, the government wants to see the parliament working on its laws.”

A leading Shiite lawmaker, Abeeda Tai, said no decision had yet been made about whether to take the break. She said Monday that if a vacation were called, it probably would be just one month because of pressure to pass laws.

To many U.S. policymakers, the vacation has become a symbol of a lack of will by Iraqis to tackle the country’s deep divisions. An extended break this summer also would have important practical implications: The administration plans an assessment of its “surge” strategy in September and has promised to measure its success based on Iraqi political reforms and reconciliation policies, legislation that cannot be passed if the parliament is not in session.

U.S. officials said that senior Iraqi leaders have promised to address the issue. If that fails to happen, however, some Republican lawmakers have vowed the vacation issue could be a deal breaker.


Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, a Republican who met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki earlier this month and has backed Bush on the war, called the prospect of the two-month vacation “unacceptable.”

“If the government is not functioning, it’s difficult to know how to help them,” he said.

Americans have been frustrated at the lack of progress by the Iraqi government, and a vacation would signify a lack of sincerity, U.S. experts said.

“Support for the president in the public and Congress is melting down,” said Larry Diamond, a former senior advisor for the Coalition Provisional Authority who is now at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. “The more that there is drift accompanying stalemate, the more the violence will intensify, and people will become despondent. I think it should, and probably will, further diminish the patience of the Congress.”

But Washington’s fixation on the issue is aggravating some Iraqi lawmakers, who view it as another example of the U.S. trying to force them to live according to Washington’s political timetable.

“Where is the sovereignty? Where is the independence?” said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish legislator. “These sorts of interventions are counterproductive.”

Even if Maliki pushed the parliament to stay in session, there is no guarantee the lawmakers would acquiesce. Defiance would hardly be unprecedented. Much of the Maliki government’s agenda has been stymied by parliament.


Lawmakers who do not live in Baghdad’s Green Zone, where the parliament is based, often have trouble reaching the sessions because of the capital’s ubiquitous security problems.

Attendance has also been affected by occasional boycotts by political blocs. From November until January, the legislature was stalled by a boycott by 33 lawmakers loyal to the anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr. They had walked out to protest a meeting between Maliki and Bush in Jordan.

Last month, one lawmaker, Sabah Saidi, announced a proposal to expel parliamentarians who missed 15 successive meetings, or who failed to attend a total of 25 meetings in an entire parliamentary session. Absenteeism is “impeding the work of the house,” he said.

The proposed law never went anywhere because, within hours of his news conference, the parliament building was bombed.


Spiegel reported from Washington and Susman from Baghdad. Times staff writer Noam N. Levey in Washington contributed to this report.