Of Budgets and Peacock Eggs

Baghdad, March 7, 2007.

This never would have happened during Saddam's regime. At a meeting today convened by the office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Barham Salih, to present the Iraqi government budget for 2007, in a week when suicide vest bombers were ambushing Shia pilgrims, when the much-vaunted Baghdad Security Plan was ramping up, the administrator of the city of Baghdad stood up to lodge a complaint. The Public Integrity Commission, said Sabir al-Essawi, had arrested one of his staff officials. "I asked what his offense was and in reply they sent me a note in almost illegible handwriting that said he stole the eggs of a peacock. And the zoo doesn't even have any peacocks."

Amid general laughter, the finance minister, Bakir Jabr Salagh, said, "Well, they should at least have said chicken eggs then."

Judge Radhi al Radhi, head of the integrity commission, shot back: "We make investigations and we give it to a judge and he decides who is arrested."

"We have big issues, not eggs," Salagh said. "We did agree that the integrity commission should try to concentrate on big issues, not peacock eggs."

"He was in fact tried and convicted," the judge added, a little defensively.

Deputy PM Salih, Iraq's economy czar, was his usual unflappable self about the sometimes uppity budget session. "This is great, this is the most important statement you can make about the new Iraq. Some people may want to portray this as chaos, I want to portray it as open government and transparency. We'll have differences, [but] my hope is we will always settle our differences through parliamentary means, instead of car bombs."

The presentation of the budget certainly was transparent. Nearly the entire executive leadership of the Iraqi government, from governors of provinces to ministers, were present at an open meeting, and many of their comments and criticisms were indeed more substantive, and often just as critical. The new budget, delivered a month late after fierce wrangling in the Shia-led cabinet, calls for expenditures of $41 billion, a substantial increase over last year's budget of $34 billion. Many of the ministers are struggling with budget allocations from 2006 that they haven't been able to spend, sometimes in the billions of dollars; they complained of excessive bureaucracy and security problems that prevented them from spending their allocations. "Be patient," said the planning minister, Ali Baban, "you should appreciate that if we relax our bureaucratic procedures, corruption will gain, and we are trying to control the corruption that has been in all of our offices."

The new budget is ambitious, not only for the capacity of Iraqi ministries to spend the funds, but also the capacity of the government to raise the funds; last year, the budget deficit was $5 billion. "We are ambitious," Salih said. "But it's not wishful thinking, and so far so good. We are fairly confident at the moment. We want 2007 to be a turning point in the Iraqi economy, Iraqis deserve a real change in the quality of life."

The biggest impediment to economic development, of course, is the deteriorating security situation. The Baghdad security plan is yet to give much solace there; sectarian killings are way down, but terrorist bombings have been keeping the body count high. With curfews and a proliferation of neighborhood checkpoints, economic activity in the city is severely hampered as long as the plan continues--and officials are talking about several months more.

"Without stabilization of security we cannot hope to deliver on economic promises. But -we cannot just wait for the security situation to improve," said Salih. "Economic regeneration and security stabilization goes hand in hand. It's not a chicken or egg situation." Nor even a peacock and egg situation.