Sunday, April 23, 2006

Iraq's Council of Representatives Convenes

Yesterday, after more than three months of negotiations, the Iraqi Council of Representatives finally convened and selected the leadership (President, Vice-Presidents, Speaker and Deputy Speakers) of the new permanent government.

I had to run over to the Convention Center where the assembly was meeting in order to provide Ambassador Khalilzad with an updated draft of his press remarks, and was able to stick around while the Representatives met. Unfortunately, the Iraqis seem to have a small hang up about allowing armed Americans to sit in on sessions of their parliament, so I was not able to attend the actual vote. (Adnan Pachachi, the acting Speaker at the outset of the meeting, actually made all of the armed Iraqi bodyguards exit the assembly hall as well). Consequently, I was forced to wait for three sweltering hours in the Convention Center's atrium with an assortment of politicians, advisors, clerics, reporters, and security personnel.

Regardless, I still felt as if I were sitting outside of Constitution Hall in Philadelphia circa 1787.

Outside the Convention Center, a large Iraqi flag comprised of red, white, and black stripes flapped in the breeze. Inside, the marble walls of the atrium were covered with tile mosaics, each of which prominently featured images of doves, including the mosaic on the west balcony depicting Iraqi soldier charging what looked to be dragons (although it is possible they were just badly drawn wolves). One wall was covered by a giant poster that read:
It was decorated with U.S. and Iraqi flags on either side, drawings of children's faces, and little handprints and hearts.

A cross-section of Iraqi society milled about, as politicians sought fresh air while waiting for the next vote to be called, and advisors or media trying to obtain a meeting with an Iraqi leader on break from the proceedings. As is Arab custom, the men kissed one another on the cheek when greeting. It is interesting how thoroughly "Western" some Iraqis look with their designer suits and brief cases. Yet there was also a large contingent of sheiks wearing traditional tribal dress, as well as a number of Shi'a clerics wearing turbans and robes. Women varied in their dress from colorful modern pants suits (a la Hillary Clinton), to black headscarves and robes from head-to-toe, to some variation in between. (When the meeting finally broke up around 1830, a higher propotion of the women exiting the assembly hall were dressed conservatively. They were likely the mandatory 1/3 female representatives from the Islamist parties).

Everybody scattered around tables, speaking into cell phones, fanning themselves with whatever paper they could find, smoking cigarettes, and drinking either bottled water or coffee and tea flavored with cardoman. At one point, somebody's cell phone rang out in a familiar tune: Da-Da-dum, Da-Da-dum, Da-Da-Da-Da-Dum. It was "Jingle Bells!" I wonder if they knew what the ringtone was when they purchased it, or if any other of the Iraqis were aware of the tune's significance. (At least it wasn't "The Dreidle Song," I suppose).

On the north end of the atrium, dividers were set up to create a separate press room on the second floor balcony outside the assembly hall. Whenever a politician came out to speak to them, there was a great commotion as the Iraqi and Arabic press fought for position around the Representative, and then went dead silent as he began to speak. As the results of the votes were announced, the Iraqi media erupted in applause. As with the Iraqi reporters who immediately began shouting praise when it was announced that Saddam Hussein had been captured, it is refreshing to see them take such a passionate interest in their own politics (as opposed to the detached cynicism and hollow protestations of impartiality by the American media).

I also was able to see several of liberated Iraq's founding fathers up close. Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of SCIRI (arguably the most pro-Iranian party in Iraq) walked right past me, surrounded by a phalanx of nervous looking security personnel. (Al-Hakim's brother was the target of a successful suicide bombing outside the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf in 2004 that killed hundreds of Shi'a worshippers). He wore a black turban signifying that he is a Shi'a cleric descended from the Prophet Muhammed, and wore a black robe over a coat that matched the gray in his beard. All the Iraqis stood as he walked by, and he smiled meekly at the deference paid to him.

As the session broke up, the outgoing Prime Minister, Ibrahim Ja'afari passed by. His speech closing the session had received thunderous applause audible from the atrium. He smiles wistfully, looking both tired and relieved, as if a great weight has been lifted from his shoulders. Public opinion polls over the past three years have consistently shown him to be the most popular single Iraqi leader, and at least one Iraqi gentlemen is eager to have his picture taken with Ja'afari.

I notice a stocky man in a dark brown suit surrounded by uniformed police and army guards approaching my table (because of its central location, not becuase of its occupant). I later find out that it is Adel abd al-Mahdi, the Shi'a Vice-President (and chief rival candidate to Ja'afari throughout the government formation process).

However, as al-Mahdi walked by, I was distracted by a tribal sheikh in flowing robes who walks behind me. He was at least 6'6" (about eight inches taller than the other Iraqis) and cuts a striking figure straight out of central casting for "Lawrence of Arabia."

His presence seems to perfectly capture the surrealness and excitement surrounding the clash of modern democratic politics in a society with a long tribal tradition.

Inshallah, yesterday was the start of a new political tradition in Iraq.

UPDATE: For a good, quick summary of what actually happened inside the assembly hall, see the link below from an excellent Iraqi blog, Iraq the Model.