BAGHDAD — Reports of the poor health among high-ranking Iraqi politicians are being seen as symbolic of the popular mood here about the U.S.-backed government.
In late February, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani was flown to neighbouring Jordan for medical treatment amid conflicting reports about his health. Sources in Amman and from Talabani’s office in Baghdad told reporters that the 73-year-old had suffered a stroke, but in a televised interview his son said that Talabani was suffering from fatigue or exhaustion.
Meanwhile, Shi’ite leader Abdul Azizi al-Hakim, leader of Iraq’s largest Shia party, recently arrived in Iran for treatment for lung cancer after being diagnosed at a hospital in the southern U.S. state of Texas.
This development, in particular, is expected to create chaos within the Supreme Islamic Council in Iraq, the political organisation the George W. Bush administration has counted on to push through legislation, particularly regarding the new Iraqi oil law.
The ailments of their leaders are not just perceived as physical by many Iraqis.
“It is a sick government right from the start and these people’s absence shows the huge size of the chaos in Iraq,” Waleed Zaidi, a political analyst in Baghdad told IPS. “The truth about rumours does not count as much as the solid fact that all those who are supposed to lead the country to stability are abroad for different reasons. A close look at the Iraqi scene shows that no one is really working to improve the situation.”
The Iraqi Parliament has not been functioning as it should either. In fact, the chaos in its meeting hall reflects the huge divisions amongst interest groups outside.
“To say the truth for history, one must admit that we are not doing much for those who voted for us hoping we would improve their living conditions,” a member of the Iraqi Parliament, who requested anonymity, told IPS. “We have our justifications for not being able to serve. Starting from the difficulty in reaching the parliament building to the daily threats to our lives inside and outside the so-called Green Zone.”
Over the past year, an increasing number of Iraqis have begun to see the Iraqi government as no more than pawns of the United States.
“The U.S. administration was furious when the Iraqi Parliament decided to declare a two-month summer vacation,” 34-year-old lawyer Alaa Abdul-Rahman from Baghdad told IPS. “It is not decided yet whether the administration’s request to parliament to give up the vacation in order to pass “essential legislations” would be accepted or not, but we know they will eventually listen to their American masters.”
Iraqis have turned the crisis in the government into harsh jokes about their leaders, but when interviewed, no one tried to hide their frustration.
“We took serious chances to go and vote for them hoping things would improve, but our situation is getting worse and worse,” said 65-year-old taxi driver Mansoor Malalla from Shula, north of Baghdad. “All they did was collecting as much dollars as they could lay their hands on, leaving us as easy targets for hit squads and street bombs.”
Malalla added, “Even Americans who we saw as our saviours have turned out to be murderers and thieves. Now I have to work at this age because I fear for my son’s life in the deadly streets of Baghdad.”
Others echoed similar feelings.
“Iraqis now feel that they do not have a government,” said Sultan Kathum, a teacher from Hilla who visits Baghdad frequently to volunteer as a human rights activist. “(With) the absence of security, the humiliation, poverty and lack of essential services… Iraq appears to have gone back to a time when tribal leaders and clerics were the only powers that could solve some of their problems.”
Some Iraqis interviewed by IPS were unwilling to accept the reasons given by Talabani and al-Hakim for leaving the country.
“I think Talabani and al-Hakim fled the country after they looted it together with their relatives and loyal servants,” said Ali Abbas from the Sadr City area of Baghdad. “I would have done the same if I were them because why stay in a sinking ship while one has a life boat that is made of gold?”
Sources inside the heavily fortified Green Zone, where the Iraqi government is headquartered, estimated the number of members of Parliament and government staff attending to their work may be less than 50 percent.
“More than half the MPs, ministers and senior officials are on vacation, sick leave or on official assignment abroad (at any given time),” a government official told IPS on condition of anonymity. “It is common practice now that they spend more time abroad than in their offices. The main reason is their fear of being targeted inside the country.”
(*Ali, our correspondent in Baghdad, works in close collaboration with Dahr Jamail, our U.S.-based specialist writer on Iraq who travels extensively in the region.)