Glad tidings from Baghdad at last. The Iraqi parliament has gone into summer recess without passing the oil law that Washington was pressing it to adopt. For the Bush administration this is irritating, since passage of the law was billed as a â€œbenchmarkâ€ in its battle to get Congress not to set a timetable for US troop withdrawals. The political hoops through which the government of Nouri al-Maliki has been asked to jump were meant to be a companion piece to the US â€œsurgeâ€. Just as General David Petraeus, the current US commander, is due to give his report on military progress next month, George Bush is supposed to tell Congress in mid-September how the Maliki government is moving forward on reform.
The signs are that, on both fronts, the administration will carry on playing for time. Bush and his officials are already suggesting they will maintain the surge for another year and that Petraeusâ€™s report will merely be an interim score card. It will not use the fateful Vietnam-era language of light at the end of the tunnel, but it will say progress is under way and therefore more congressional patience is needed. Similarly Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador in Baghdad, is playing down the urgency of the benchmarks. He has reminded the US media that Congress can take years to make reforms on complex issues such as immigration and healthcare. That said, the administration â€” particularly the vice-president, Dick Cheney â€” and the oil lobby are enraged that the oil law is stalled. The main reason is not that the Iraqi government and parliament are a lazy bunch of Islamist incompetents or narrow-minded sectarians, as is often implied. MPs are studying the law more carefully and have begun to see it as a major threat to Iraqâ€™s national interest regardless of peopleâ€™s religion or sect.
This is the second bit of good news from Iraq. Civil society, trade unions, professional oil experts and the media are stirring on the oil issue and putting their points across to parliament in the way democracy is meant to work. The oil unions have held strikes even at the risk of having leaders and members arrested.
The pervasive outside image of Iraq as a country in free-fall where violence on a mass scale is an ever-present threat is not wrong. But it can mask the fact that â€œnormal lifeâ€ and indeed â€œnormal politicsâ€ are still possible. The real reason why the Bush administration wanted the oil law rushed through was that it feared public discussion and was worried that the more people understood what the law entails, the greater the chances of its defeat. Key parties in the Iraqi parliament oppose it, including the main Sunni party â€” which this week withdrew from government â€” as well as the Shia Sadrists and Fadhila.
As a staunch supporter of the current international financial architecture, the UK PM Gordon Brown is unlikely to press for a relaxation of these unfair terms. Moreâ€™s the pity, since the best way for Iraq to prosper once the occupation is over and it finally solves its sectarian crisis is to have maximum control over its major natural resource. Most Iraqis believe the invasion of 2003 was largely about oil. Peace is also about oil, and it surely makes sense not to let the panic and distraction of the current security crisis be used as a cover for handing the countryâ€™s wealth to foreigners. â€” The Guardian