Global Policy Forum

Delay and Uncertainty Hamper Day-to-Day Efforts


By Edward Wong

New York Times
March 26, 2005

The delay in forming a new government in Iraq has stalled important projects at ministries and is sowing confusion among current government workers about their duties, senior Iraqi officials say. After the Jan. 30 elections, the office of the interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, ordered the country's more than two dozen ministries not to start any long-term projects or make any major policy decisions because the new government was expected to be installed quickly.

Last week, as negotiations over a new government dragged on, Dr. Allawi's office rescinded its order. But some ministry officials say they were not aware of that change or remain hesitant about pushing ahead with long-term projects. Many government employees are also working at a slower pace because they are distracted by the political negotiations and insecurity of their own jobs, the officials say.

"The lack of a government is causing a lot of problems," Sabah Kadhum, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, which oversees the nascent police force, said this week. "People are not carrying out the responsibilities they should be. This is happening in all the ministries. There's absolutely no excuse. It's a very unfortunate way to begin a new government."

The main Shiite and Kurdish political parties have been engaged in heated talks to form a coalition government. Together, they hold more than two-thirds of the 275 seats in the national assembly, enough to name a president and two vice presidents, who will then appoint a prime minister. But the two groups have doggedly looked after their own interests, and as the talks have sunk into a quagmire, the confidence of ordinary Iraqis has ebbed.

Officials from both sides say they are at odds over the control of oil fields and the splitting of oil revenue, as well as over important posts in the government. The Kurds and Shiites are also negotiating with the Sunni Arabs, who largely boycotted the elections, over which jobs the Sunnis will fill. In addition, the various parties have yet to agree on any role Dr. Allawi and his allies might play in the new government.

Fallout from the protracted talks has been mounting. Ali Faisal al-Lami, a senior Shiite official, said Friday in an interview that a split had begun to emerge in the ranks of the main Shiite political bloc, as some Shiite politicians began to question the nomination of Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a conservative former exile, for prime minister.

The most immediate impact, though, is being felt in the ministries, as officials struggle to overcome gridlock and carry on with day-to-day work. Hajim M. al-Hasani, the minister of industry and a national assembly member, said the initial order from Dr. Allawi's office forced him to delay starting any long-term projects. That included anything needing large amounts of financing, he said. "I had a couple companies that were supposed to sign contracts with foreign companies to do work on the factories, but they couldn't do it," he said.

The Ministry of Industry oversees 60 state-run companies spread out across 270 factory sites. It is also in charge of 11 more companies that, under Saddam Hussein, produced weapons for the government. As with all ministries, any major decisions or plans are supposed to be reviewed by the cabinet of ministers and various committees that report to the prime minister's office. The order to freeze those plans was made shortly after the Jan. 30 elections by Zuhair Hamoudi, the head of the cabinet.

"For the last few weeks, these types of decisions, you couldn't really make," Mr. Hasani said. "Some of the ministers, because of the first order, couldn't carry out what they're supposed to do." That paralysis ended last week, when Mr. Hamoudi rescinded his order. Mr. Hasani said he was now pushing forward with major contracts and projects. Still, he said, work at his ministry and others was slow to get going. "The distraction is everywhere," he said. "Unless you're very close to the circle of decision making, you don't know what's going to happen; of course people are distracted."

Raad al-Haris, a deputy electricity minister, said that with the start of the long hot season only weeks away, an array of delayed power station projects now had to be pushed forward quickly. "We are in a very critical time," he said, adding that in just two months, "we will have very high temperatures and we will have the peak load."

In the Oil Ministry, officials were reluctant to commit to big contracts even before getting the order from the prime minister's office, said Falah K. Khawaja, the ministry's director general for management, human relations and development. Noting that questions over the future government have been lingering for months, he said, "We have been holding off on long-term planning for some time."

Some officials said they were unaware that Mr. Hamoudi had lifted his order, and were still operating under the assumption that it was still in place. One such official said he had prepared a big report in the third week of January but had never shown it to any of his superiors because he was afraid it would get lost in the current atmosphere of uncertainty. "It's become a caretaker government," he said.

"Most officials' minds are taken up by the politicking," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job. "It's only natural." That politicking is intense and changes day by day. At the moment, the Shiites and Kurds are debating how to split up oil revenues, officials on both sides said. The Kurds have been pushing for the Shiites to promise that tens of thousands of Kurds who were exiled from the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk under Mr. Hussein will have their property quickly restored. The resulting demographic change would then strengthen the Kurdish case that Kirkuk and its oil fields, which account for 10 to 20 percent of the country's reserves, should come under Kurdish administration.

Based on the assumption that they will eventually control Kirkuk, the Kurds are arguing for more regional control of oil revenue. Several formulas were being reviewed by the Kurds and the Shiites, including one that would give more control of revenue to the provincial governments than to the central government in Baghdad, said Safeen Dizayee, a spokesman for the Kurdistan Democratic Party, one of the two main Kurdish parties. "This is a mechanism that needs to be worked out and needs to be clear," Mr. Dizayee said. "There are different proposals. It's a matter of taking the most practical proposal."

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