In Iraq, car perk overrides promises to public
BAGHDAD – Iraq's lawmakers have hightailed it out of town for a six-week vacation without following through on promises to cancel a pricey perk for free armored cars that they approved for themselves in the annual budget.
It is the sort of move that is fueling resentments 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 rework the $100 billion budget that came under widespread criticism 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," Ammar Hassan, a college graduate from Karbala who drives a taxi to support himself, said. "They only think about themselves instead of paying attention to people's welfare."
The 39-year-old Hassan said he earns an average of about $200 each month — a fraction of the monthly $22,500 salary afforded to each of the 325 lawmakers in parliament.
"I'm afraid the day will come when lawmakers pass a law imposing taxes on ordinary people' 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 percent are unemployed, according to U.S. data compiled by the Central Intelligence Agency.
Raw sewage runs through the streets in many neighborhoods, 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 lawmakers were given a $90,000 stipend for expenses in addition to their monthly salaries when they took office in 2010. And in February, parliament voted to buy $50 million worth of armored cars to protect lawmakers from insurgent attacks that routinely target officials.
But far more innocent bystanders than government officials usually are killed in Iraq's still-frequent bombings. The pricey perk enraged the public, which was only soothed 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, lawmakers have dragged their feet on 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 al-Khalidi.
A member of the Sunni-dominated Iraqiya political bloc, al-Khalidi lives in the northern Ninevah province, a former al-Qaida bastion, and voted to give lawmakers the cars.
Before lawmakers could finalize any changes, parliament started a six-week vacation last week and isn't scheduled to return to Baghdad until June 15.
Baghdad political analyst Hadi Jalo said lawmakers likely hoped the public would simply forget about the cars perk after February's controversy died down.
"This cover-up attempt means that the lawmakers still want these cars," Jalo said. "They are not angels and they want to get everything with financial benefits."
Over the last 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 toward 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 self-rule 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," al-Araji said.
Associated Press Writer Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report. Follow Lara Jakes on Twitter at www.twitter.com/larajakesAP