RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Security in Iraq may have improved, but the drop in violence hasn't been matched by political progress. Last year, President Bush insisted on a series of benchmarks, although none of those benchmarks has become law yet. The U.S. military has fostered reconciliation efforts at the local level. Those efforts haven't been matched at the national level, where political battles continue to paralyze the government.
In this next of our reports on one year into the U.S. troop surge in Iraq, NPR's Anne Garrels examines the political landscape there.
ANNE GARRELS: No one has anything good to say about the current Iraqi government, not even Barham Salih, the deputy prime minister.
Mr. BARHAM SALIH (Deputy Prime Minister, Iraq): I think we do have a very serious political crisis in this country. We need to do a lot better in terms of bringing about the political environment that can sustain these security gains. Iraq is in need of exceptionally qualified, capable government. My government, the government of which I am part of, leaves a lot to be desired. A country like Iraq cannot be run like this.
GARRELS: What was billed as a national unity government has fractured. Sectarian and political fights over power have left one-third of the government's ministries leaderless, with resulting chaos.
Kassim Daood, a member of parliament with the ruling Shiite coalition, says it's the U.S., not the Iraqi government, which has improved security. He says Iraqi Sunnis turned against al-Qaida not because of anything the government did, but because al-Qaida overplayed its hand and the U.S. stepped in to help Sunnis now willing to battle insurgents.
Mr. KASSIM DAOOD (Shiite Parliament Member, Iraq): We need badly the engagement of the government. Probably we may lose now the momentum. For the time being, I'm calling cease-fire. I'm not calling a real reconciliation. If you want me to call it a real reconciliation, I would like to see the fingerprint of the government on this process.
GARRELS: U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker says the government must do more to reassure Sunnis who have turned on al-Qaida. One way is to provide jobs.
Ambassador RYAN CROCKER (U.S. Ambassador to Iraq): We'll do job creation for a while, but the Iraqi government - as it will have to do in a number of other areas - is going to have to pick up the larger and larger share of this as we move ahead.
GARRELS: The U.S. military has been busy getting Sunni and Shiite leaders to work together at the local level, but Crocker acknowledges this has not been replicated by Iraqi officials at the national level.
Ambassador CROCKER: That's got to happen or nothing good is coming down the line.
GARRELS: M.P. Kassim Daood doesn't see any hope of progress as long as Nouri al-Maliki remains prime minister. He says Maliki is dangerously sectarian and the government clinically dead. He's exasperated with the Bush administration's continued support for Maliki.
Mr. DAOOD: Basically, we cannot improve it without changing the government itself. When we want to start any initiative regarding to this, we immediately receiving one of these statements from your president saying that I'm supporting Maliki. And this has played a very destructive way in our efforts and really frustrating us.
GARRELS: Charles Tripp, an Iraq specialist at London University, says the current chaos serves the interests of many and may well continue for a long time.
Professor CHARLES TRIPP (University of London): There is an array of characters and parties and personalities and factions who are not discontented with the relative powerlessness and loss of authority of Maliki himself. It doesn't do much for national government, but it allows a lot of people to line their own nests, develop their own militias, create their local power bases, insert themselves into forms of power in Iraq.
GARRELS: It's not just the executive branch which is a problem. The Iraqi parliament doesn't get a passing grade either. For the past month, it didn't muster a quorum.
In a rare public interference in politics, the leading Shiite religious figure in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, refused to bless parliamentarians who recently went on the pilgrimage to Mecca, declaring they had more important things to do here at home.
(Soundbite of crowd)
GARRELS: At Baghdad's social services office, displaced Iraqis are united in one thing: despair. The halls are crowded with the poor and the homeless. Hassan Abbass Shaker, an unemployed father of nine, has come here again and again, only to be turned away each time.
Mr. HASSAN ABBASS SHAKER: (Through translator) We risked our lives to vote for this government. Even if someone couldn't walk, he crawled to cast his vote. We hoped this government could achieve justice, but all they do is collect huge salaries.
GARRELS: American Colonel Ricky Gibbs, in charge of southwest Baghdad, is just as frustrated. He's ready to tear his hair out; this coming from a no-nonsense, crew-cut officer. He is trying to get a senior official from the Health Ministry to come to his area. But despite repeated efforts, no one has turned up.
Colonel RICKY GIBBS (U.S. Army): Now, I need to get that guy in here because I have three hospitals we need to open. And I have tried at every level that I know of from my Army chain of command through driving up there and meeting with people in the vice president's office saying I need this guy and he hasn't shown up yet. I've told them I will come pick you up in my armored vehicles.
GARRELS: Government corruption is a major problem, and benchmark laws on de-Baathification, oil, and provincial powers have stalled over lack of consensus on what kind of country Iraq should be. There's no agreement on what Americans might call states rights. The absence of these laws means it's not clear what levels of government are responsible for what. And as long as these laws are not passed, there are unlikely to be local elections, which Ambassador Crocker believes are critical to providing local credibility and stability.
Ambassador CROCKER: It's probably going to be fairly important to have elections, say, within the coming year as a means of, you know, regulating this competition.
GARRELS: In the meantime, Colonel Gibbs says people he meets tell him the Americans are the government for now.
Col. GIBBS: We're that link until the government stands up. And the people see us. You go over in East Rasheed and they told General Petraeus, they say the Americans are the government. We are delivering the services.
GARRELS: But American forces can't do everything. After five years, no one is meeting the expectations of Iraqis. And just as no one has anything good to say about the government, many Iraqis still blame the U.S. for their problems.
At the social services office, Iraqis are just as critical of the Americans as they are of the Iraqi government. Given its huge power, Iraqis say the Americans must be deliberately undermining Iraq.
But for all its effort to push the process, the Bush administration seems powerless to get timely results from the Iraqi government.
Anne Garrels, NPR News, Baghdad.
MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, our final story in our series on the one year anniversary of the surge. It examines another goal - getting Iraq's own army and police to take over security there.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.