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Leaders' pricey perks irk frustrated Iraqis

Iraq's lawmakers have left town for a six-week vacation without following through on promises to cancel a pricey perk for free armored cars that they approved for themselves in the budget.

It is the sort of move that is fueling resentments among the struggling Iraqi public, many of whom accuse the country's leaders of being corrupt and only in politics for their own profit. For months, parliament has failed to rework the $100 billion budget that came under widespread criticism or pass a list of laws to tackle the country's numerous problems.

"They have not discussed ways of how to improve the lives of people like me," said Ammar Hassan, a college graduate from Karbala who drives a taxi to support himself. "They only think about themselves instead of paying attention to people's welfare."

Hassan, 39, said he earns an average of about $200 each month -- a fraction of the monthly $22,500 salary for each of the 325 lawmakers in parliament.

Iraq's government has been rife with corruption going back to the regime of former dictator Saddam Hussein, who hoarded the nation's oil riches for himself and his cronies amid an impoverished public.

But hopes that conditions would dramatically improve as Iraq tried to build a post-Saddam democracy proved overly optimistic. About 25 percent of Iraq's 31 million people live in poverty, and an estimated 15 percent are unemployed, according to U.S. data compiled by the CIA.

Raw sewage runs through the streets in many neighborhoods, sickening residents and adding to an overall sense of misery. Many Iraqis have only 12 hours of electricity each day.

By contrast, Iraqi lawmakers were given a $90,000 stipend for expenses in addition to their monthly salaries when they took office in 2010. And in February, parliament voted to buy $50 million worth of armored cars to protect lawmakers from insurgent attacks that routinely target officials.

But far more innocent bystanders than government officials usually are killed in Iraq's still-frequent bombings. The perk enraged the public, which was only soothed by promises to redirect the money to what parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi called "more important and vital items for the community."

Since then, however, lawmakers have dragged their feet on giving up the cars -- and on most other vital legislation.

Lawmaker Mohammed al-Khalidi said the latest plan being considered would let legislators from some of Iraq's most dangerous provinces -- Baghdad, Sunni-dominated Anbar and Ninevah, and the sectarian and ethnically divided Diyala -- keep the cars.

"Others who live in violence-free areas such as the self-ruled northern Kurdish region and southern provinces will not get them," he said.

Before lawmakers could finalize any changes, parliament started a six-week vacation last week and isn't scheduled to return to Baghdad until June 15.

Over the last 18 months, parliament has passed 85 laws. But few deal with Iraq's most pressing problems, such as disputed lands in the country's north, power disputes between provinces and the central government and whether to extend credit to investors seeking to help rebuild the war-torn nation.

Political wrangling has shelved four laws that would pave the way toward Iraq producing and exporting more oil and potentially injecting new wealth into the economy. The laws would also regulate the oil industry's growth and create a formula to divide resources and profits among provinces.

Iraq sits on top of the world's fourth largest proven reserves of conventional crude, about 143.1 billion barrels. But the country lacks the necessary systems to produce and export the oil, and has been trying to lure energy investors to help.