By SINAN SALAHEDDIN, Associated Press
BAGHDAD (AP) — Faced with bitter criticism from an impoverished public, Iraqi lawmakers said Wednesday they were having second thoughts about buying themselves millions of dollars worth of armored cars on the government's dime.
In a late-night vote with little scrutiny, parliament last week approved spending $50 million on the armored cars out of the $100 billion Iraqi budget for 2012.
Since then, the cars controversy has consumed Baghdad, with everyone — from government officials to revered clerics to newspaper editors — condemning the pricey perk.
Lawmaker Mohammed al-Khalidi, a member of the secular but Sunni-dominated political party, said Wednesday he voted for the armored cars but is now reconsidering taking one, "given the reaction from the Iraqi people."
"We are the sons of this nation and what the people decide, we agree with," said al-Khalidi, who represents the northern city of Mosul, 225 miles (360 kilometers) northwest of Baghdad.
He voted for the cars because, he said, he escaped two assassination attempts as a lawmaker. "If I don't feel safe, how can I reach my people?" he said.
Violence has dropped dramatically across Iraq from just five years ago when the country teetered on the brink of civil war. But deadly attacks still happen nearly every day — including on Wednesday, when six people were killed in bombings that struck two cities — as militants try to undermine public confidence in Iraqi's government and security officials.
The lawmakers voted in favor of the armored cars last Thursday, the same day 55 Iraqis were killed nationwide in bombings and shootings coordinated by al-Qaida.
Under the spending plan, the cars would be distributed to all 325 lawmakers, with an additional 25 earmarked for the office of parliament Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni member of Iraqiya.
The budget marks Iraq's highest public spending plan ever. It is dependent on projected revenues curried from oil exports of 2.6 billion barrels daily at $85 per barrel.
It also calls for the government to distribute a quarter of any projected revenues in cash payments to all Iraqis. However, officials say that will not happen until after June at the very earliest, or at all until the country's estimated $12.7 billion deficit is paid back.
But many Iraqis have grown cynical about the government's efforts to serve the public. Within hours of the budget vote, the armored cars triggered a driving fury from Iraqis who believe they have little say or influence in the government.
"There are dozens of villages in the country that do not have access to drinking water while lawmakers set aside money to buy armored vehicles for each one of them," cleric Ahmed al-Safi, a top aide to the revered Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, said during prayers last Friday in the Shiite holy city of Karbala, 55 miles (90 kilometers) south of Baghdad.
A quarter of Iraqis live in poverty, and an estimated 15 percent are unemployed, according to U.S. data compiled by the Central Intelligence Agency. A midlevel government employee makes around $600 a month.
By comparison, Iraqi lawmakers are paid $22,500 a month in salaries and allowances, and were given a $90,000 stipend for expenses when they took office in 2010. The new armored cars would give them a minimum $100,000 expense on top of the perks they've already accrued.
"Because they are addicted to privileges, they think of themselves first and they voted to buy the cars immediately," said 33-year-old Baghdad resident, Ghazawn Abdul-Wahab.
University student Mohammed Tariq predicted lawmakers ultimately would not get the cars with the government money, which he said was "being stolen from the wealth of the nation and being stolen from our rights."
Sensing the brewing anger, al-Nujaifi on Tuesday asked lawmakers to give up the armored cars — even though he called the criticism the result of an "unfair media campaign." He said five lawmakers have been killed in recent years and "dozens" of others targeted in unsuccessful assassinations while "performing their daily duties to serve the nation and homeland."
"Because of the sensitivity of the situation and to secure the people's trust in you, please give up this constitutional right and shift the money to more important and vital items for the community," al-Nujaifi said in a statement to parliament Tuesday. The plea was posted on his office website hours later.
One group of lawmakers refused the cars from the get-go.
Shiite followers of hardline cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said they would not accept the perk after their leader announced that a person who does take the car is "a traitor for his nation and homeland, and moreover, disobedient to God."
Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra, Sameer N. Yacoub, Mazin Yahya and Lara Jakes contributed to this report.