Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, the speaker of Parliament, read a roll call of the 275 elected members with a goal of shaming the no-shows.
Ayad Allawi, the former prime minister? Absent, living in Amman and London. Adnan Pachachi, the octogenarian statesman? Also gone, in Abu Dhabi.
Others who failed to appear Monday included Saleh Mutlak, a senior Sunni legislator; several Shiites and Kurds; and Ayad al-Samaraei, chairman of the finance committee, whose absence led Mr. Mashhadani to ask: “When will he be back? After we approve the budget?”
It was a joke barbed with outrage. Parliament in recent months has been at a standstill. Nearly every session since November has been adjourned because as few as 65 members made it to work, even as they and the absentees earned salaries and benefits worth about $120,000.
Part of the problem is security, but Iraqi officials also said they feared that members were losing confidence in the institution and in the country’s fragile democracy. As chaos has deepened, Parliament’s relevance has gradually receded.
Deals on important legislation, most recently the oil law, now take place largely out of public view, with Parliament — when it meets — rubber-stamping the final decisions. As a result, officials said, vital legislation involving the budget, provincial elections and amendments to the Constitution remain trapped in a legislative process that processes nearly nothing. American officials long hoped that Parliament could help foster dialogue between Iraq’s increasingly fractured ethnic and religious groups, but that has not happened, either.
Goaded by American leaders, frustrated and desperate to prove that Iraq can govern itself, senior Iraqi officials have clearly had enough. Mr. Mashhadani said Parliament would soon start fining members $400 for every missed session and replace the absentees if they fail to attend a minimum amount of the time.
Some of Iraq’s more seasoned leaders say attendance has been undermined by a widening sense of disillusionment about Parliament’s ability to improve Iraqis’ daily life. The country’s dominant issue, security, is almost exclusively the policy realm of the American military and the office of the prime minister.
Every bombing like the one on Monday, which killed 88 people at a downtown market, suggests to some that Parliament’s laws are irrelevant in the face of sprawling chaos and the government’s inability to stop it.
“People are totally disenchanted,” Mr. Pachachi said in a telephone interview from Abu Dhabi. “There has been no improvement in the security situation. The government seems to be incapable of doing anything despite all the promises.”
Though the Constitution grants Iraq’s only elected body wide powers to pass laws and investigate, sectarian divisions and the need for a twothirds majority in some cases have often led to deadlock. Sunni and Shiite power brokers have blocked efforts to scrutinize violence connected to their own sects.
“Parliament is the heart of the political process,” Mr. Mashhadani said in an interview at his office, offering more hope than reality. “It is the center of everything. If the heart is not working, it all fails.”
Monday’s attendance actually surpassed the 50 percent plus one needed to pass laws. It was the first quorum in months, caused in part by the return of 30 members loyal to the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, whose end to a two-month boycott created a public relations blitz that helped attract 189 members.
But the scene in the convention center auditorium where Parliament meets only underscored the rarity of the gathering. It seemed at times like a reunion. At one point Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who is head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and a Shiite rival of Mr. Sadr, arrived late — after being marked absent. He spent the first five minutes waving and nodding at colleagues, some of whom he apparently had not seen in months.
Parliamentary officials refused to provide attendance lists for every session, fearing retribution. They said all sects and regions had members who often did not come.
Each representative earns about $10,000 a month in salary and benefits, including money for guards. Yet on Monday, members from Baghdad neighborhoods to small towns in the hinterland — Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Christians and Turkmen — were all on the list of no-shows that Mr. Mashhadani read aloud.
The largest group of absentees consisted of unknown figures elected as part of the party lists that governed how most people voted in the December 2005 election. Party leaders in Baghdad said they had urged their members to attend but emphasized that for many, Parliament had become a hardship post.
Representatives who travel from afar stay at the Rashid Hotel in the Green Zone, across a road, two checkpoints and several pat-downs from the 1970s-era convention center. It is not luxurious. It is barely safe. The food is mediocre.
In short, many said, the job is not what members thought they had signed up for.
“Most of them were here for the game, for prestige, for the money,” said Muhammad al-Ahmedawi, a Shiite member of the Fadhila Party. “It’s upsetting and disappointing. We want the members to come, to pursue the interests of their constituents, especially in this sensitive time.”
Mr. Ahmedawi said politicians who had larger shares of power before the elections seemed to view Parliament as a demotion best ignored. Mr. Allawi, for example, who did not return calls to his London aides requesting an interview, has been rallying support in Amman and London among exiles who have fled Iraq’s violence.
Of the 25 members of his bloc, only six attended the session on Monday.
Mr. Pachachi, who is in his mid-80s, said he left Iraq a few months ago because his wife needed open-heart surgery and he did not trust that she would be well cared for in one of Baghdad’s decrepit hospitals. He said he hoped to return in a few weeks, admitting that “one has to be there — you can’t be a member of the Parliament and live abroad.”
But he said the dangers involved with being a public figure in Iraq had made it much more difficult to participate in government. He has 40 guards to protect him when he comes to Iraq, he said, and the salary from Parliament pays for only 20.
“I have protection, and unfortunately the protection is not sufficient for anyone anymore,” he said. “The level of violence has become unmanageable.”
Other Iraqi politicians take a harder line. Adnan Dulaimi, a member of the largest Sunni bloc in Parliament, put it simply, “If there are some members who think there is no benefit to attending, then they should resign.”
Mr. Mashhadani seems to be shaping a slightly softer approach that mixes persuasion with punishment. Like Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, he has met repeatedly with party leaders, pushing them to ensure the attendance of their members.
During an interview in his office, lined with baroque cushioned chairs with gold trim, he also acknowledged that more money should be set aside for members’ security, but only if members show up to pass a budget.
He said the shaming of the absentees at the public session, a first, was the first step. He said the fines and threat of replacement would also help.
There is, of course, only one problem. For the proposals to be put in place, a majority of members in Parliament have to be present to pass them.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company