A Congress of Fools

Americans may have a low opinion of their own Congress, but one wonders what they would think about the congress in Baghdad if they ever paid close attention to it.

By late April of last year, that then-newly elected parliament had been deadlocked for four months over who would become speaker (a post presumably reserved for a Sunni) and who would become prime minister (a post presumably reserved for a Shiite).

The Shiites rejected the Sunni candidate for speaker, Tariq al Hashemi, saying, as The New York Times put it, he was "too hard-line and sectarian." The Sunnis rejected the Shiite candidate for prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, believing he had done too little as interim prime minister to stop sectarian violence.

Finally, Hashemi and Jaafari dropped their bids, and Sunnis and Shiites accepted compromise candidates. Mahmoud al-Mashhadani became the Sunni speaker. Nouri al-Maliki became the Shiite prime minister.

President Bush, understandably, viewed this as a breakthrough for Iraqi democracy.

"Iraq’s new government has another able leader and speaker, Mashhadani," Bush said on May 22, 2006. "He rejects the use of violence for political ends, and by agreeing to serve in a prominent role in this new unity government, he’s demonstrating leadership and courage."

Three weeks later, on a surprise trip to Iraq, Bush met with Mashhadani, who had already received rave reviews from America’s own speaker. "Denny Hastert told me I’d like him," Bush said later at a press conference. "Denny met with him. And I was impressed by him."

"I found him to be a hopeful person," the president added.

But Mashhadani, an Islamist, wasted no time in giving President Bush reason to think again.

In a July 8, 2006, interview with Al Sharqiyah TV, Mashhadani presented an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory to explain what was happening in Iraq. "Those that commit these acts [of sectarian violence] are nothing but the sons of snakes and devils who receive support from abroad, particularly from the Mossad," he said. "These Jews hiding behind Iraqi faces are known to us, and the day will come when we purge our country of them."

A week later, he accused U.S. forces of butchery. "The U.S. occupation is butcher’s work under the slogan of democracy and human rights and justice," he told a UN conference.

"I personally think whoever kills an American soldier in defense of his country would have a statue built for him in that country," he said.

Mashhadani’s behavior was as wild as his rhetoric. On his second day as speaker last year, his bodyguards got in a brawl involving a female Shiite legislator, a member of Moqtada Sadr’s party. Her cell phone rang — twice — with a Shiite prayer in the lobby of the parliament as Mashhadani was doing a TV interview nearby. The speaker’s bodyguards beat up one of the legislator’s aides, and she joined in the melee. When she complained the next day on the floor of parliament, Mashhadani shut down the session.

It wouldn’t be the last time that Mashhadani would either purposefully or inadvertently close the chamber.

Last month, he caused a massive walkout after he strangely began laughing during a discussion about a report on some Iraqi refugees. When a member challenged him on this odd behavior, he said: "The magnitude of the tragedy is making me laugh. Three quarters of the deputies are responsible for [sectarian] cleansing and killings."

As outraged legislators exited the chamber, a fellow Sunni upbraided the speaker. "Shut up, you scum," Mashhadani said as he slapped the man on the face.

This month, Mashhadani’s bodyguards reportedly liberated a Shiite lawmaker from half his clothing after he passed too closely to the speaker in a corridor.

After this incident, 168 members of the 275-member Iraqi parliament met in a closed session on June 10 with a majority of those present (113) reportedly voting to oust Mashhadani as speaker and appoint his Shiite deputy as interim speaker. Mashhadani refused to relinquish his position, however, and on June 24, the two Sunni blocs in parliament, which control 55 seats, announced they were boycotting until Mashhadani is restored.

Their attitude seems to be: He may be a lunatic, but he is our lunatic.

Meanwhile, the 30-seat bloc controlled by Shiite sheik and warlord Moqtada Sadr is boycotting parliament to protest the recent destruction of the minarets at the Golden Mosque in Samarra.

All this should matter a great deal to Americans for this reason: The surge strategy that is now taking an escalating number of U.S. lives was aimed at giving Mashhadani’s and Sadr’s parliament a chance to pass reforms it was hoped would reconcile Sunnis and Shiites.