Baghdad: Civil society groups said Friday they are to launch a legal battle for Iraqi MPs left idle since a March 7 election to return the $40 million (Dh146 million) they have received in salaries and allowances over the past eight months.
"The Iraqi Civil Initiative to Protect the Constitution has decided to appeal to the supreme court for the return of remunerations received by parliament members since the election," a coalition of 12 groups said.
The groups, in a statement, said they would organise a demonstration today in central Baghdad's Tahrir Square "to protest against the repeated violations of the constitution despite a supreme court decision." Iraqi lawmakers have collected their $90,000 stipend, they're raking in $22,500 a month in salaries and allowances, and they're spending free nights in Baghdad's finest hotel, and they've only worked about 20 minutes this year, without passing a single law.
As the parliament prepares to hold what will be only its second session since the inconclusive election in March, lawmakers' lavish salaries and privileges are deepening resentment among Iraqis struggling to make ends meet and frustrated with the political deadlock.
The Shiite religious leadership, always tuned into sentiment among the Iraqi religious majority, has warned politicians against living the high life while ordinary people lack basic services, such as electricity and water.
In contrast, a mid-level government employee makes around $600 a month.
In a mosque sermon yesterday, an aide to Iraq's top Shiite cleric urged parliament to lower their salaries when they next meet.
"It's reasonable to request the lawmakers' salaries do not reach a lavish level," Ahmad Al Safi said. "This is a very important issue ... I do not know why they keep turning a blind eye to it."
Since June, when the lawmakers first met for 20 minutes, Iraq's parliament has failed to convene. Sharp divisions among political blocs have prevented the formation of a new government, and not a single law has been debated, much less passed.
Still, the 325 lawmakers collect their cash and perks.
"Iraqi politics has turned into business," said Wael Abdul Latif, an independent Shiite politician and former lawmaker from Iraq's second largest city of Basra. "Many of the lawmakers would not even have bothered to run for the parliament" if salaries were not so high, he said.
The lawmakers' June meeting consisted of a Quranic reading, the playing of the national anthem and the swearing-in of new members. It produced one decision: to leave the session open but unattended, a technicality to allow more time to choose a new leadership since the election failed to give any party a ruling majority.
After the session, lawmakers collected the $90,000 stipend they are allotted for their four-year term to cover personal expenses.
Lawmakers are preparing to hold a second session, likely in the coming week, only because the Supreme Court last week ordered them to return to work.
Meanwhile, Iraqis who voted in large numbers in hope of strengthening their nascent democracy after years of authoritarian rule, war and sectarian violence have grown bitter at the politicians they chose to represent their interests. The current parliament is the second full legislature elected since Saddam Hussain's fall in 2003, following a transitional parliament elected in January 2005.
"Instead of working hard and doing a good job, they are enjoying a paid vacation," said Jalal Mohammad, a retired clerk for the administrative council in the southern city of Basra. "I think the parliament members should only be paid if they do something useful for their country."
An Iraqi lawmaker's basic monthly salary is $10,000, just $4,500 short of that of rank-and-file members of the US Congress. In addition, Iraqi MPs get a $12,500 monthly allowance for housing and security arrangements, for a combined total of $22,500.
Lawmakers pay only six per cent of their $10,000 base salary in taxes. They also get to spend nights free at Baghdad's Rasheed Hotel in the relatively safe environment of the Green Zone, regardless of whether parliament is in session. They collect a $600 per diem when travelling inside or out of Iraq.
Once out of office, they get 80 per cent of their salary monthly for life, and for eight years they can keep the diplomatic passports that they, and often their families, are issued.
In contrast, a high school teacher or a doctor in a public hospital each earns about $650 a month.