Itâ€™s easy to miss the bullet holes in the walls of Haider Muthanaâ€™s office.Â They form eight neat craters in the ceramic tiles that cover one half of the room. Â Â Muthana is the head of the parliamentary directorate responsible for the internal organisation of Iraqâ€™s Council of Representatives, supporting the legislative process and the work of the committees.Â The fact that his office was once the garage for Saddam Husseinâ€™s cars, when he made speeches at the conference centre that now houses the parliament, tells you much about the circumstances in which the parliamentary staff and politicians operate.
The conference centre is a large brown, ugly building, characterised by cracked windows, fraying carpets and exposed electrical wires hanging from ceilings and walls around almost every corner.Â The centre was never designed to be a parliament, and the staff and committees have found makeshift homes where they could find them, often only reached by lengthy walks up stairs or down meandering corridors.Â The effect on the building of the mortar fire, IEDs and gun battles that were routine until very recently, have not made things any easier.Â Â So, by comparison with the dilapidation in the rest of Iraqâ€™s parliamentary building, the bullet holes and pockmarks are easily overlooked.Â Yet, the changing state of Muthanaâ€™s office – and of that of the CoR more widely reflects the slow and incremental political progress in Iraq.
A recent report from the International Crisis Group was damning in its criticism of the parliamentâ€™s record in exercising effective oversight over Iraqâ€™s government.Â Itâ€™s difficult to argue with many of their conclusions.Â But itâ€™s also easy to underestimate the scale of the task that has faced both politicians and parliamentary staff.Â Â A few years ago Iraq exhibited the most extreme form of zero-sum politics.Â There was no trust between the political blocs – and very little trust even between members of the same parties.Â Those divisions still exist.Â The tensions between Prime Minister Malikiâ€™s State of Law party and Ayad Allawiâ€™s Iraqiyya, are the most obvious and constant challenge to the functioning of government and parliament. Â It took a year to form the government and get the committees appointed.Â There remains a huge backlog of legislation and intra-party negotiation on all matters is tortuous.
But there are small signs of improvement. Â The current Speaker of the CoR is a formidable figure who has brought some order to proceedings.Â Where previously MP’s ambled into the plenary session until it was quorate, one of the first acts of Speaker Nujaifi was to oblige MPs to register their attendance â€“ fining MPs for non-attendance and publishing their names.
The Speaker recently won a significant battle with the government in ensuring that the Supreme Audit Institution and Transparency Commission reported to it rather than to the Prime Minister, and will appoint its members.Â And, the committees â€“ which are the engine of the parliament – are starting to find their feet and to work on a cross-party basis.Â The Human Rights Committee, for example, is closely watching the creation of the independent Human Rights Commission, and the Finance Committee will shortly start to grapple with the state budget.Â At the same time the conference centre itself is slowly being overhauled.Â Although the first stone of the new parliamentary building was laid in late September, it will take several years to complete.Â In the meantime, there is a continuous buzz as offices are refurbished, new carpets laid and windows replaced.Â Muthanaâ€™s office itself has become a more professional and comfortable place with new furniture, partitioned walls, and additional staff in the last year.
If you look for them, the signs of change are starting to happen.Â There is no doubt that the challenges for Iraqi politics are massive.Â Â The gains remain fragile and the differences may be limited and easy to miss â€“ like bullet holes covered in polyfilla â€“ and their significance should not be overstated.Â But for all that, neither should they be dismissed.Â Political change most often starts with the small things, which we hope may be indications of a much deeper shift.