Waiting for a new government, ordinary Iraqis suffer

Athab Jabbar, 70, stands in front of the shia Muslim mosque he built in the Meshtal district of Baghdad. Obtaining gun licenses for his guards has been delayed until the new government is formed.
Athab Jabbar, 70, stands in front of the shia Muslim mosque he built in the Meshtal district of Baghdad. Obtaining gun licenses for his guards has been delayed until the new government is formed. Hannah Allam / MCT

BAGHDAD, Iraq — Athab Jabbar, 70, runs a house of worship, so it tugs at his conscience that his gun-toting guards aren't licensed by the Iraqi government and that he isn't properly registered with the central Shiite Muslim religious authorities.

When he's tried to file the paperwork that would bring his small mosque into compliance with Iraqi law, however, the answer is always the same: Only after a new government is formed.

For hundreds of thousands of Iraqis such as Jabbar, the delay in seating a new government, which already has lasted nearly three months, has complicated everyday errands and added bureaucratic frustration to lives that are hard enough thanks to persistent violence and the lack of basic utilities.

More than 100,000 new state jobs are on hold, and mundane tasks such as obtaining licenses and registering for pensions are backlogged until a new government is seated, Iraqi officials and Baghdad residents said this week.

Each day the political infighting drags on, more Iraqis begin to question their participation in the March 7 parliamentary elections, which the Obama administration had counted on to pave the way for an unimpeded withdrawal of U.S. forces by the end of next year.

As militants continue a campaign of bombings, assassinations and high-profile robberies, complaints of a security void are growing. In casual conversations, call-in radio shows and newspaper cartoons, Iraq's ruling elites are portrayed as Green Zone dwellers with 24-hour electricity, personal bodyguards and little empathy for the suffering of ordinary folk.

"They're not politicians, they're barbarians," said Jabbar at the Baghdad mosque he'd dreamed of building since childhood.

Jabbar opened the modest sanctuary with a sky-blue dome in 2004. The next year, insurgents blew up a gas tanker at the front gate, killing more than 50 people. In summer 2007, he said, another bomb exploded outside the entrance. He recruited family members to protect the mosque at the height of sectarian bloodshed, when survival was key and gun permits were an afterthought.

Now, Jabbar said, he wants to get the proper licenses and government subsidies for his guard force. He expected the newly ascended Shiite ruling class to be more supportive of protecting religious establishments. In this tense transitional period, he said, the mosque remains vulnerable, and "we have no other option but to have our guys carry guns" while Iraqi politicians squabble over who gets which cabinet position.

"They didn't come to serve the citizens, to save us. We defied everything, even terrorism, to go and vote for these people, and I've come to believe my vote was worthless," Jabbar said.

Bahaa al Araji, a parliament member who's allied with militant Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr, said the delay in forming a government "has paralyzed all avenues of life."

He said 111,000 state jobs that were approved by the outgoing parliament have yet to be filled because the next parliament must form an employment council to make the hires — bad news for a country where the unemployment rate hovers at 30 percent to 40 percent.

"As for life for Iraqis in the meantime, real estate transactions and the trade markets have halted as a result of the anxiety Iraqis have regarding the new government," Araji said. "Even socially, Iraqis are affected by the delay — they don't know what tomorrow will bring."

U.S. Ambassador Chris Hill said American diplomats hadn't seen major failures of the government in performing its duties since the election, but added that the lack of parliamentary oversight and the inability to launch new initiatives for the past three months is frustrating ordinary Iraqis.

"The politicians, at the end of the day, are going to have to do a little better job of listening to their constituents and moving ahead," Hill told reporters this week. "More importantly, I think the politicians are going to have to put their own ambitions aside. In the fullness of history, they're going to be judged not by their own ambitions but by what they did for their country."

Confusion reigned at Baghdad's central pension office one recent morning. Elderly retirees filled out pension forms, only to be told that their applications couldn't be accepted. Various reasons were given, but the weary patrons blamed it on the lack of a new government.

"I can't find an official to complain to; there's nobody to even receive our complaints — we haven't had a government in months," grumbled Moussa Mohammed, 50, a retired army colonel.

Faiz Jalil Falih, 30, whose job is to help retirees fill out their applications, said the usual crowd of pensioners has thinned because people are too scared to risk their lives coming to an office where they'll only find delays.

"We're a country that needs to be rebuilt. We need a hard-working government to do that, but what's happening is the opposite," Falih said. "The country most desperate for a government has no government."

On the banks of the Tigris, the once-mighty river whose water level has dropped dramatically in the past couple of years, Tareq Hatif, a 56-year-old fisherman, cast his net and shrugged off the delay in forming a government.

"We continue to clean the streets by ourselves with or without a government; the electricity is still off with or without a government; water is still down with or without a government and, finally, security is bad with or without a government," Hatif said. "So why should the people care about a government?"

(McClatchy special correspondents Mohammed al Dulaimy and Sahar Issa contributed to this article.)


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