â€śHabibi, can I smoke here?â€ť None of us knew the answer to the old womanâ€™s question. Unlike most of Western Europe, certain countries in the Middle East seem to positively encourage smoking indoors. We didnâ€™t know the view of Baghdad airport. One of us turned to an airport official, sitting idly outside one of the many single-room offices in the building to check. â€śItâ€™s illegal, but you can do it if youâ€™re discreet.â€ť The womanâ€™s family suggested she go and smoke in the toilet. She declined, but the conversation then turned to morality - not of whether it was right to break the rules, but whether smoking was morally acceptable. The general conclusion seemed to be that it was - and in that case the formal airport rules were largely irrelevant. Its this sort of logic that is informing much of Iraqi politics at the moment. In the absence of norms and precedents, the early years of any new democratic politics are always characterised by a fight over how the rules should be interpreted. Argument tends to revolve around whatâ€™s right, rather than by what the constitution says. With all sides claiming that their version of the truth is the definitive one. With no common agreement about what the Iraqi constitution means, Prime Minister, parliament and ministries have been engaged in a relentless series of tussles about the respective powers of their institutions in recent months. In parliament, Speaker Nujaifi is pushing parliamentâ€™s prerogatives to call ministers in to be questioned. Individual ministries are resisting. One committeeâ€™s attempt to conduct a ministerial hearing resulted in the minister storming out, telling the committee that he had come to tell them how to do their job, not to be asked questions. In May the Supreme Court weighed in, with a ruling that in order to question any minister, parliament needed evidence that the minister had breached the constitution. Turning the logic of parliamentary scrutiny on its head, the decision means that parliament is unable to ask ministers for information about their work - only to accuse them of constitutional violations once they have evidence. This battle widened during the spring into an attempt to remove Prime Minister Maliki, with opposition parties trying to find enough MPs to force a vote of no confidence. In retaliation, MPs loyal to the PM have sought to find ways of removing Speaker Nujaifi, and the Prime Minister has talked about forcing early elections. None of this seems likely to happen in the near future, but the political scuffles seems set to continue, with both sides trying to make life as difficult as possible for the other. Perhaps the most farcical skirmish in this battle came at the end of June when, apparently at Malikiâ€™s behest, the blast walls protecting parliament were removed, thus exposing the building to direct attack from the Red Zone. With impeccable timing this was one day before parliament was due to return after a monthâ€™s recess â€“ and attempt to unseat the PM. In the event, parliament had another three days off, much to the delight of many staff, before the walls were put back up - with the security measures around the parliament tighter than they were beforehand. Although the tone of politics may seem petty and counterproductive, there are significant political issues at stake. The way the constitution and parliamentary procedures are interpreted now, will shape how Iraqi politics works for some time to come. Once precedents are laid, they are very difficult to pull up. All sides realise the importance of determining how government works in practice. It is a battle over how power is exercised, and by whom. The process may be messy, but it is inevitable. All mature democracies went through similar phases, often over decades. One story from the US Congress in the nineteenth century describes how the Speaker was punched by one member, guns were drawn and the plenary session degenerated into a free-for-all brawl. By comparison with Western Europe and North America, Iraqâ€™s attempts to establish democratic processes are remarkably swift. Patterns will establish themselves, but until they do, argument is likely to be characterised by emotion and different views of whatâ€™s right, rather than rules. Back at the airport, a different official provides us with another metaphor for Iraqâ€™s politics. Asked why one passenger was being ushered to the front of the static and seemingly endless check-in queues, he responded with a blank look and drily stated, â€śAku Asbaab.â€ť That is, simply, â€śthere are reasonsâ€ť. Its difficult to argue with that sort of logic.
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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.