As Iraq's New Parliament Meets, A Bad Rep Lingers

Former member of parliament Mithal al-Alousi speaks at a parliament session in 2006. i i

hide captionMithal al-Alousi was one of several members of the Iraqi parliament pushed out by the country's elections in March. Alousi has been known as an outspoken critic of what he sees as the wastefulness and corruption that has characterized the government here.

Faleh Kheiber/AP
Former member of parliament Mithal al-Alousi speaks at a parliament session in 2006.

Mithal al-Alousi was one of several members of the Iraqi parliament pushed out by the country's elections in March. Alousi has been known as an outspoken critic of what he sees as the wastefulness and corruption that has characterized the government here.

Faleh Kheiber/AP

Iraq's new parliament will convene a session Monday for the first time since inconclusive elections in March.

More than 65 percent of the new parliamentarians are newcomers, since Iraqi voters kicked out many well-known names in the last election.

The shift reflects a general feeling among the Iraqi public that the last parliament was both corrupt and sectarian, and did little to help Iraq.

The new members are being met with incredibly low expectations, but the challenges they face are still huge.

Major legislation like the oil law — to determine how production and profits of the country's vast oil wealth will be shared — still needs to be resolved. In addition, jobs need to be created, and Iraq's devastated infrastructure still needs to be revamped.

It's a tall order, and many here are pessimistic that it can be filled.

One of those who lost out in the election is former parliamentarian Mithal al-Alousi. The halls of Alousi's offices were once bustling with petitioners and others trying to curry his favor.

Now the halls echo in emptiness, his many retainers finding little to do.

Alousi has always been known as an outspoken critic of what he sees as the wastefulness and corruption that has characterized the government in Baghdad.

Instead of a democracy, what has been born in Iraq, he says, is a "kleptocracy."

Under The Influence

He speaks openly of how regional governments, including Iran, Turkey, Syria and Saudi Arabia, bribed members of the former parliament to do their bidding.

"I'm serious now. The Iranian influence and the pan-Arab influence was huge in the Iraqi old parliament. We have seen it. We have felt it. And we did pay a huge price because of that," Alousi said in an interview with NPR.

This influence took the form of monetary payments to parliamentarians, he said. "Of course, paying money, putting them under pressure, helping them to do something, yeah, of course," Alousi said.

A woman wears an Iraq flag after voting in the country's parliamentary elections in March. i i

hide captionAn Iraqi woman holds up her inked finger after voting in the country's parliamentary elections in March. Voters pushed out over 65 percent of the old members of parliament in the election. The new parliament holds its first session on Monday.

Muhannad Fala'ah/Getty Images
A woman wears an Iraq flag after voting in the country's parliamentary elections in March.

An Iraqi woman holds up her inked finger after voting in the country's parliamentary elections in March. Voters pushed out over 65 percent of the old members of parliament in the election. The new parliament holds its first session on Monday.

Muhannad Fala'ah/Getty Images

The outgoing parliament had taken over just as Iraq's civil war broke out in 2005. Alousi says that affected everything the legislators did, and the acrimony between the different sides paralyzed them.

"What we did start in the last four years was a sectarian issue. A sectarian government, a sectarian parliament. We lost the real standards ... that's why we did lost the trust by our people," he said.

Wathab Shaker is another former member of parliament who did not win in the recent elections. He has also been an outspoken critic of his former colleagues.

A businessman by trade, Shaker says what was most shocking to him was the brazen corruption among many parliamentarians.

"I'm a trader who became a politician, but there were many politicians who in the parliament became traders," Shaker said.

And he says they made a lot of money doing it.

"Unfortunately, a big number of them built houses outside Iraq. Politicians would use their influence to push certain deals through," Shaker said. "The proof is that there has been so much money spent on reconstruction in Iraq, but where are the buildings, the hospitals, the schools, the electricity, the water? We could be the richest country in the world, but our people are digging through the trash."

The Damage Left Behind

Iraq analyst Joost Hiltermann says the change in parliament is noteworthy.

"What is telling is that so many of the senior parliamentary leaders did not make it in the elections this time," said Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit policy and analysis institution.

"Those that have less-than-stellar records and maybe have engaged in corruption, the question is: Will they be indicted or will they even be in Iraq by the time the judiciary gets around to pursuing them?" Hiltermann said.

He predicts that many of them will skip town to live in those houses they have bought abroad.

The real damage is to the trust Iraqis have in their fledgling institutions.

On the streets of the Iraqi capital, it is hard to find a single person who will express confidence in Iraq's parliament.

"The former parliament did not give anything for our nation, and I expect that the new parliament will be the same," said Ahmed Dawood, a 20-year-old wedding photographer.

Hassan Mohammed, a supermarket owner, also has his reservations.

"The former parliament succeeded in funding them well, now they have money and villas. For example: One MP just bought a villa for $5 million in my neighborhood," Mohammed said. "How did he get that money?"

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