Armored Cars and Making Law in Post Saddam Iraq
The latest scandal to erupt in the Iraqi legislature (known as the Council of Representatives) involved, of all things, armored cars. The affair demonstrates well some of the best and worst of Iraqi governance in the post Saddam era. On the one hand, it is commonly emphasized in popular media outlets that Iraq remains in some level of severe political division, and this is hard to contest. One of the major items of contention among the competing political factions concerns the fate of Sunni vice president Tariq Al-Hashimi. One major political faction, dominated by Iraq’s Shi’a, has demanded that he be brought to justice for alleged terrorist acts. Naturally, the Sunni dominated faction opposes this and claims the charges are politically motivated. To add complication, Hashimi is currently protected by virtue of being in the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan and the Kurds, Iraq’s third major ethnopolitical faction, have to date refused to give him up. In the meantime, a national conference to be attended by all major political groups that was supposed to address this and other issues of division has been delayed, indefinitely, amid disputes over the agenda of the conference, its location and its date relative to the date of the upcoming Arab League Summit to be held in Baghdad. Even the preparatory committee for the conference seems to be stalled, with each faction blaming another for delay for supposed reasons of self-interest. This is for obvious reasons a significant source of concern for all.
Still, it must be pointed out that in spite of the severe divisions, political life goes on. The Iraqi ministries are functioning, with an earlier boycott called off, and even the Council of Representatives managed to pass a $80 billion budget on February 23 in the midst of the ongoing crisis. Whatever this rather disturbing set of affairs is, and whatever danger it poses to the future of Iraq, it would be a mistake to describe it as a “stalemate”. Work is continuing, at a frustratingly slow and uneven pace to be sure, but perhaps in a manner that might compare favorably to our own currently more stalemated U.S. Congress.
The passage of the budget brings us to the curious and related scandal of the armored cars. Iraq’s Council of Representatives decided to devote by legislative fiat approximately $50 million of the budget to the providing of armored cars for the 325 members of the Council of Representatives, which works out to a rate of approximately $200,000 per automobile, assuming each member requests one. In fact, over two thirds of the Council of Representatives had requested such automobiles already, and the vote in favor of the armored cars was, in light of this, predictably lopsided.
Yet curiously, following a popular uproar, most of the major parliamentary leaders have suggested that their faction vehemently opposed it and the support must have come from other factions. Given the overwhelming vote in favor of the allocation, this surely cannot be true. Still, for a vote that was hardly controversial in the Council of Representatives when passed, there was very little said in defense of it. The most that could be mustered by way of justification (if it could be called that) was a statement by the well known Kurdish politician Mahmoud Othman that the vote was injudicious and enacted in a moment of near panic following a series of attacks throughout Iraq. Precisely what would be comforting about the idea of a legislature in a state like Iraq panicking at every terrorist attack is not entirely clear, yet at least Othman was responsible enough to offer something by way of a reason for the appropriation.
The reason few others felt the need to justify the vote was that Iraqi legislative processes are appallingly unaccountable. Nearly everything passes by consensus, and at most a quick showing of hands demonstrating (to the Speaker’s satisfaction) a significant majority in favor of a particular action. No record of votes is made, no tabulation kept, thereby enabling any legislative member to be persuaded to vote for an item while being able to effectively deny the same, unless the camera in the open legislative session happened to fall upon that member at the inopportune time that he was raising his hand in support of the measure. Only in such circumstances would a legislature even consider making an appropriation this large for an expense of this sort in a country with as pressing a set of needs as Iraq has.
And yet, accountability is not entirely lost in the new Iraq, for the political outcry was significant, sustained, and carried widely throughout enough media outlets. Moreover, after the highly revered Shi’a clergy of Najaf came to denounce the measure, followed by similar exhortations during Friday sermons throughout all of Iraq, Shi’a, Sunni and Kurdish, the Council of Representatives was forced to reconsider the measure. There followed on March 6 a chaotic session in which some defenses (finally) were made to the law as being necessary given the threats to the lives of parliamentary members, some denunciations were made of the media for igniting the issue (though Najaf’s involvement blunted the ferocity of those attacks to some degree) and a great deal of demagoguery and posturing was evident among representatives eager to restore their damaged reputations. In the end, the appropriation was withdrawn, and the money devoted to it was directed to other sources; namely, payment to victims of terrorist attacks and to bolster security. Even this may not end the matter, given that the vote withdrawing the appropriation did not go through all of the processes of ordinary lawmaking (including three full readings on the floor of the Council of Representatives), leading some to describe the attempted repeal as unconstitutional with some justification, on the grounds that only a law could amend a previous appropriation set by law. A claim may yet be made to the Federal Supreme Court, though its ruling on the formal rules of the legislative process is not likely to result in any parliamentary members getting armored cars given the outcry that has already erupted. At most, it would seem to prolong the determined appropriation for some period of time.
Thus, a government highly divided, seemingly perpetually on the verge of an existential crisis, yet functioning, and imperfectly accountable, in the end came to find its way in the most tortured, circuitous and inefficient manner possible using methods of lawmaking that are, at best, barely constitutional. And yet, in the end, it did find its way. Though a small and passing tale of little sustained interest on its own, the story of the armored car appropriation reflects well the methods of lawmaking and governance in the new Iraq.