The Associated Press
Saturday, Feb. 13, 2010 | 12:05 a.m.
With elections looming and the U.S. withdrawal of combat troops less than seven months away, political disarray is threatening Iraq's future as well its past.
A parliamentary logjam is holding up legislation touching everything from prison staff, border crossings and counterterrorism troops to an archaeological excavation in dire need of tourists.
The January election that was supposed to clear the way forward has been delayed to March 7, and even if it is accepted as fair and inclusive, overcoming factional infighting and seating the new government "might really take some time," the U.N. special envoy for Iraq, Ad Melkert, told The Associated Press.
Even the official start of the Iraqi campaign season, which began Friday, had been pushed back by more than a week as Shiites and Sunnis bickered over who was eligible to run.
Funding delays have stunted hiring at a model prison. Inaction on a counterterrorism law has cut the salaries of Iraqi special forces soldiers by $1,000 in danger pay as they struggle with a steady barrage of bombings.
And general dysfunction seems to be holding up $10 million the U.S. already has given to the Iraqi government for roads, electricity and water services at a checkpoint on the border with Iran.
The 5,000-year-old ruins of Ur, birthplace of Abraham according to the Old Testament, are a vivid example of Iraq's predicament.
The site, some 190 miles (300 kilometers) south of Baghdad, is launching a campaign to attract visitors after decades of being closed under Saddam Hussein's rule, and about 200 French tourists are expected to visit in a few months. But money for fences, walkways and excavations won't come until well after Iraq's new government is seated.
Scrambling along a dusty path by an ancient ziggurat, caretaker Diaf Mussin shared his vision of what may lie beneath his feet: "Maybe houses, maybe temples, maybe tombs. When they excavate here I am sure they will find millions of treasures to fill all the museums."
For now, he can only hope that "Maybe after the elections there will be a plan."
This week, the government finally approved Iraq's $72.4 billion budget for 2010, but as many as 79 draft laws are sitting in Parliament and almost certainly won't be approved until after the March 7 election of 325 new parliament lawmakers.
That election itself has been thrown into question by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's purge of hundreds of candidates linked to the Baath Party. It is widely seen as the Shiite-dominated government's way of targeting the Sunni minority, which made up the backbone of Saddam's Baathist regime.
Of more than 450 election candidates barred for allegedly being Baathist loyalists, only 28 won reprieves from an appeals panel Thursday.
Sunni leaders are threatening to boycott the election, while an aide to Muqtada al-Sadr, the powerful Shiite anti-American cleric, cheered the purge in his Friday sermon, saying "we bless and support the decisions."
For those who hoped the elections would finally bring a nonsectarian democracy to the war-weary nation, these are worrying signs. And the election is unlikely to produce a decisive winner, said Brett McGurk, a Harvard University fellow who worked on Iraq policy for the Bush and Obama administrations.
If the result is inconclusive, "then everyone is trapped in zero sum narratives," he said. "It's going to be very difficult."
"It was always going to move slowly, coming out of the Saddam years," McGurk said. "Tremendous progress" has been made, he said, "But the likelihood of having a long, protracted deadlock is still quite high."
At Camp Taji, a prison outside Baghdad, warden Hussein al-Mohammadawi has 1,900 correctional officers and says he needs 3,000 to be fully staffed when American forces hand over full control of the facility on March 15.
Portrayed as a model prison for 5,600 inmates, it is meant to highlight Iraq's sharp departure from the Saddam era, and Baghdad has promised to meet all his needs, al-Mohammadawi said, but "there is no set government to resolve the funding."
About 240 miles (380 kilometers) southeast of Baghdad, freshly painted inspection stations sit idle at the al-Sheeb border crossing to Iran.
The plan is to upgrade the site to allow more trucks to come through, generating greater tax revenues. Between 75 and 150 trucks filled with Iranian imports cross the border each day, and officials estimate hundreds more could come if the renovations are completed.
But the site needs paved roads, electricity and water, and the $10 million provided by the U.S. can't be released without Baghdad's approval, said U.S. Army Maj. Dan Dorado, U.S. commander of the crossing. Why that hasn't happened is a mystery, he said.
The crossing "is still in a sort of stagnant state," said Dorado.
Even the Iraqi army's most elite unit is feeling the pinch as it waits for parliament to adopt the national counterterrorism law that funds its missions. The law is 33rd on the list of 79 awaiting approval, according to parliament's Web site.
The soldiers continue to work with U.S. forces to hunt terrorists, but to pay for their fuel, ammunition and other equipment, their commander has to call in favors from government officials.
"Unfortunately, we don't have a dollar to lay our eyes on," said Maj. Gen. Fadhel al-Barwari, a brigade commander. "I'm praying to God that maybe I'll go out one day and it's raining money."
Associated Press Writer Maya Alleruzzo contributed this report.