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New Iraq parliament up in air amid political row

For weeks, Iraqi MPs have been locked in a political crisis that has stalled progress on key decisions including one affecting their own offices in a future parliament complex.

Iraq launched an international competition in late 2011 to design a new parliament, replacing the current Saddam-era edifice, and last week, the Royal Institute of British Architects, which ran the contest to shield Baghdad from accusations of corruption, recommended a London-based group for the job.

But the chosen group Assemblage has not heard from parliament officials since being selected, and British architecture publications have said Baghdad is still in talks over a rival design by award-winning Iraqi-born architect Zaha Hadid.

"I think that they've got their hands full right now with trying to keep the parliament from being dissolved and the whole thing collapsing," Peter Besley, cofounder and director of Assemblage, told AFP by telephone.

"I think the main concern is that there won't be a parliament to sit in this building if we build it," he added. "So we've got to give them some time. I think their in-boxes are a bit full right now."

Besley was referring to a series of interlocking political crises in Baghdad that have pitted Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki against his erstwhile government partners ahead of key provincial elections in April.

Various members of Maliki's national unity cabinet -- Sunnis, Kurds and members of his own Shiite community -- have accused him of authoritarianism and sectarianism, and he has faced weeks of protests that have hardened opposition against his rule.

The row has largely brought policy-making in Iraq to a standstill, with no landmark legislation passed since parliamentary elections in March 2010.

And now it appears the dispute has stalled decisions on plans to relocate parliament from its current location inside the capital's Green Zone to another central Baghdad location, but one outside the heavily fortified complex that is home to the cabinet as well as the American and British embassies.

Under the terms of the RIBA competition, Iraq's parliament is under no obligation to choose the project that emerged top in the contest, but with a week having passed since the winner was announced, officials in Baghdad have not even acknowledged receiving the RIBA recommendations.

Assemblage says it has received the $250,000 competition prize, and is keen to get on with more detailed designs and planning that could see construction on the new parliament begin as early as 2015.

Artists' renditions provided by Assemblage depict a cylindrical building surrounded by walls that pattern to shade from the sun, lying in the centre of a large plaza.

Inside are two large chambers to house the Council of Representatives and the Federation Council, the latter of which is an upper chamber of parliament that has yet to be created under Iraqi law, but references to which are in the country's constitution.

According to Assemblage, construction of the entire complex has been set at $411 million.

But multiple Iraqi parliament officials declined to comment on the contest when contacted by AFP, and Baghdad has made no announcement about the competition except for an official tender advertised on the parliament website in 2011.

Britain-based magazine "Building Design" has reported that both second place Capita Symonds and third place firm Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) both regarded the contract as yet to be awarded.

ZHA declined to respond to questions from AFP, but said in a statement: "ZHA continues to address the committee's on-going technical queries. To our knowledge, no decision has been made."

So for now, Assemblage is -- like observers of Iraqi politics -- in wait-and-see mode.

"We're really interested in starting that process, but they just have a lot to do right now," Besley, 44, said. "I also think they're not used to doing this."

"In the West, governments are more used to it, ministries are all set up for running these large infrastructure projects. I think they're still finding their feet, and I think they need to be supported, really."

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