In Iraq, Assertive Parliament Emerges Under New Speaker

With Ayad al-Samarraie in charge, parliament has been more aggressive in trying to hold the government answerable.
With Ayad al-Samarraie in charge, parliament has been more aggressive in trying to hold the government answerable. (By Ali Al Saadi -- Associated Prss)
By Nada Bakri
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 27, 2009

BAGHDAD, May 26 -- In a test of wills that could shape Iraq's turbulent politics for years to come, the country's parliament has moved decisively against a minister accused of corruption and has threatened to summon Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to answer lawmakers' questions.

The struggle over Trade Minister Abdul Falah al-Sudani in recent days is more than just the typical debate between legislative and executive powers. The newly elected speaker of parliament, Ayad al-Samarraie, a Sunni Arab, is attempting to reshape the institution ahead of crucial elections scheduled for January, eight months before the Obama administration has pledged to withdraw most combat troops from Iraq.

"The government kept parliament weak for the past three years," Wael Abdel Latif, an independent lawmaker, said Monday. "But now, with Samarraie in power, it's becoming stronger, and it's assuming its rightful place."

The conflict involves two of the dominant forces in today's Iraq. An increasingly powerful Maliki is attempting to centralize authority in the hands of a coterie of advisers his opponents have nicknamed "the impenetrable circle." Opposing Maliki, a Shiite, are politicians who say they are trying to build institutions in a state still susceptible to the appeal of a strongman.

Politicians on both sides have made the stakes clear. Under Samarraie's leadership, parliament has become more aggressive in trying to hold the government accountable for ministerial corruption thought to involve billions of dollars. Maliki, in turn, has threatened to quell opponents by compiling evidence against them that could lead to criminal charges, his foes say.

The move against Sudani has been seen as the first salvo in what may broaden into a wider campaign against Maliki's cabinet.

Sudani submitted his resignation May 14 amid accusations that his two brothers had skimmed off tens of millions of dollars in kickbacks on food and other goods imported by the Trade Ministry. Maliki did not accept the resignation until Monday, ostensibly to give lawmakers time to review the allegations.

Sabah al-Sudani, the minister's brother, was arrested this month in southern Iraq after being caught with $150,000, $50,000 of which he tried to use to bribe a policeman, said Gen. Habib al-Musawi, head of the Iraqi army's 10th division in the south. The other brother, Majid al-Sudani, remains at large.

Questioned in parliament last week, Abdul Falah al-Sudani was uncooperative, legislators said. "The minister didn't answer any question. He denied everything. And he wasn't convincing in his denials," said Bassem Sharif, a Shiite lawmaker.

Despite Sudani's resignation, lawmakers say they may still seek criminal charges against him.

In asserting parliament's new role, Samarraie has transformed the institution from an arena for seemingly endless debate and hour-long speeches into an organized forum that starts with the ring of a bell at 10:00 a.m.

Under the former speaker, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, discussions often drifted into minutiae, prompting many lawmakers to start side chats, talk on cellphones or read newspapers.

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