Iraq may be fracturing along sectarian and ethnic lines, but its people are uniting in anger and disbelief at protracted political haggling over government posts amid a raging Sunni Islamist insurgency.
Bickering lawmakers on Monday delayed for almost five weeks a parliamentary session meant to decide a new government aimed at countering the militant onslaught, before moving the date forward again to July 13, still more than two months after April elections.
After years of legislative paralysis and accusations of sectarianism, a new unity government is seen as one of the best ways of draining the resentment that has poisoned politics and allowed militants led by the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group to overrun vast tracts of the country at lightning speed.
“The postponement of the parliamentary session was a shock to Iraqis living amid a sea of blood and a lack of services and jobs,” said Essam al-Bayati, a professor at the University of Kirkuk in northern Iraq.
The first parliamentary session after April 30 polls ended in farce last week when most Sunni Arab and Kurdish lawmakers stormed out after bitter exchanges, dismaying Washington, which has made greater political unity a condition for more military aid.
Even taciturn cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, revered by Iraq’s majority Shiites, labelled the episode a “regrettable failure”.
Order was restored shortly after the chaotic session, however, when lawmakers lined up to register for their substantial parliamentary privileges, which include armed guards and a salary many times that of the average Iraqi.
“The country is on the way to the abyss and they only care about positions and privileges,” said Imad Khalaf, 38, a port worker in the mainly Shiite southern city of Basra.
- Out of time -
The formation of Iraq’s last government took about nine months, time the current crop of lawmakers do not have given a Sunni Islamist insurgency many consider an existential threat.
“The insurgents will take advantage of the absence of active authority in the country to expand their attacks with the aim of control over larger areas of the country,” said a policeman who declined to be named in the ethnically mixed central city of Baquba.
IS militants may not have reached the capital, but low-level attacks continue, stoking tensions in a city divided in many districts into sectarian enclaves traumatised by years of bloodletting.
The golden-domed Al-Askari mosque in Samarra north of Baghdad, one of Shiite Islam’s holiest shrines, is within artillery range of IS insurgents, and its 2006 bombing by Sunni militants triggered one of the most brutal rounds of sectarian slaughter in Iraqi history.
- Slim hope -
For months bound and blindfolded bodies — often bearing signs of torture — were found dumped on roadsides or bloated and floating down the Euphrates and Tigris rivers as Shiite death squads and Sunni militants ran amok.
“Why do I have to keep my children at home and out of school? Why after we break our fast do we sit at home scared instead of visiting each other?” asked exasperated Baghdad seamstress Umm Ahad, referring to the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
“These leaders have shipped their families abroad, so its the poor people who are the victims,” added the mother-of-six.
Even when parliament reconvenes, prospects for a speedy formation of a new consensus government appear slim.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shiite seen by many as a divisive and sectarian leader, on Friday vowed to continue to seek a third term despite eroding political support both domestically and overseas, with Washington in particular making clear its frustrations with the premier.
The 64-year-old leader and his coalition partners dominated April elections, and there is no obvious consensus candidate to replace him or guarantee a successor will not be subject to the same pressures that have long hamstrung decision-making.
The Kurds, meanwhile, have taken control of disputed areas bordering their autonomous northern region after Iraqi troops retreated in the face of the IS onslaught, and have since called for a vote on outright independence.
The UN has warned of Iraq descending into “Syria-like chaos”, and according to an unverified video posted online, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has felt confident enough to make an audacious public appearance at one of Iraq’s grandest mosques.
“We have a crisis,” said 31-year-old Baghdad grocer Abu Mussa, “and this postponement for calculations and deals between politicians is the biggest betrayal of the Iraqi people who went out to vote for them.”