It's Tough in Iraq's Parliament. And Even Vacations Get Political.

There are plenty of stark reminders for those who grouse about the increased security at the entrances to Iraq's National Assembly. A flimsy sign pleads for cooperation. A poster bears the photo of the lawmaker killed in a bombing in the parliamentary cafeteria last month."It's dangerous," warns the guard running the X-ray machine.

It's also hot. As if to underscore the institution's marginal powers, it was afflicted again this week by, well, marginal power. An electrical outage forced the suspension of Tuesday's session and crippled air conditioners, leaving the cavernous convention center built under Saddam Hussein to bake the politicians in their business suits, tribal robes and, for many women, long black capes and head scarves. Workers crisscrossed the marble floors and worn carpets with dollies hauling cartons of bottled water.

It's certainly not easy being a parliamentarian in Iraq these days. Many of the politicians have sent their families abroad for safety. They compete for scarce housing in the fortified Green Zone. Most make about $6,200 a month, plus a stipend for teams of 20 guards each. Judging by the rancor at some recent sessions, they could use a vacation.

But Americans, from Congress to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, are warning that the 275 lawmakers shouldn't take off until they finish their work. It's the question of "benchmarks," the legal steps the Shiite-dominated government is being urged to make to accommodate the Sunni minority in forging what Americans call a "national compact." Vice President Dick Cheney came here Wednesday to press for the agreements, and Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, traveling with him, said it was "impossible to understand" how the Parliament could go ahead with the two-month break scheduled to start in late June.

The pressure comes as recent mortar attacks have prompted security companies and the U.S. Embassy to warn against walking outside without body armor even in the Green Zone--a blast rattled windows during one of Cheney's appointments. It's just the latest example of how the violence and deterioration in greater Baghdad seems to be seeping in between the segmented blast walls of the four-square-mile fortified district.

Iraqi politicians resent what they consider foreign interference in their summer schedule. Their indignation lets them turn time off into a gesture of national sovereignty. "Against the Americans' wishes, I will take my vacation," grinned Sunni Hussein al-Falluji. Lawmakers note that high on the American wish list is a law to privatize Iraq's oil industry, which many see as America's motive for coming here in the first place. They also point out that most Western governments shut down for long summer breaks.

But many are willing to cancel at least some of their break if only to further their own political needs. A Kurdish representative, Mohsen al-Saadoon, wants to take the sessions to his semiautonomous Kurdistan, where the weather and security are more accommodating. And followers of anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr seem the most eager to stay in session, placing them oddly in agreement with U.S. officials, perhaps because their grass-roots radar picks up the low esteem Iraqis hold for their current leaders. "The national assembly has not met the ambitions of the Iraqi people," lamented Sadr faction member Baha al-Araji.

It's unfair to lay the full burden of the benchmarks on the beleaguered lawmakers. They were elected on slates led by the political (and militia) figures installed under the American-designed system and are largely controlled by them. It is among those leaders--Kurdish President Jalal Talabani, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, Shiite cleric Abdel Aziz al-Hakim and myriad Sunni figures coaxed into the government--where the key issues remain deadlocked.

Parliamentarians say they can't work on the oil law until the leadership works out compromises, and they're right. It's still stalled at the top levels. The legislative committee proposing amendments to the constitution--a key demand among Sunnis--has worked out the issues it could and kicked the rest upstairs. Various revisions of the de-Baathification law, the removal of Saddam Hussein's former party members that is a priority for U.S. diplomats, are floating around outside the legislature and will take months for the leaders to sort through--if they want to. "If [the leaders] are serious, we can do it in one or two months," said Christian legislator Yonadam Kanna, who blames "fanatic" anti-Baathists for stonewalling. It's the same clique U.S. officials had to bird-dog for months to produce a constitution in 2005.

True, the parliamentarians are an easy target--and not just for mortars. They spent most of a recent session in all-too-common grandstanding in condemnation of the Al-Jazeera television network and looking for ways to curb independent news coverage. They frequently shut down their live broadcast when members broach sensitive subjects or criticize leaders. Parliamentary Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani slapped al-Falluji in an argument after Thursday's session, according to The Associated Press.

Lawmakers commonly whine about being searched at checkpoints or standing in line with the common folk they are supposed to represent. Absenteeism is rampant. Iraqis of all sectarian stripes write them off as pampered and useless.

But like their countrymen they are subject to forces well beyond their control. Several have had relatives killed. Last week, two brothers of a parliamentary staff member were snatched in what appeared to be a sectarian attack on Sunni commuters. The aide, who asked not to be named, pulled all the strings he could but still failed to get police to look into the case. Friends in the Parliament called their contacts seeking a release as the kidnappers taunted the family with calls until finally declaring the men were "terrorists," in effect their death sentence. The staffer searched through reeking morgues overcrowded with decaying bodies until he found his siblings, mutilated and dead, and now he is in hiding with his family.

Meanwhile one the Parliament's small successes, a feel-good bill to restructure retirement benefits is tied up in the executive. Rank-and-file efforts at cross-sectarian coalitions are sometimes stymied by orders from party bosses in the palace compounds.

Sunni lawmaker Noureddine Saeed al-Hayali says Al Qaeda militants recently tagged his house in Mosul with a threat against anyone who tries to live there--he long ago moved his family out of the country. But he believes it's his "duty" to skip vacation and hopes the image of sweaty parliamentarians flapping hand fans might show the world that Iraq needs help. Keeping their cool might be the best they can do.