BAGHDAD — Gunmen waving their weapons out the windows of unmarked cars are the most distinct sign of what it's like to live in political limbo. They've been roaming the streets freely in the four months since Iraqis elected a parliament that has failed to form a permanent government.
There are other hints too: The squatters who've taken over an old air force building. The armed, illegal vendors who've staked out claims to sidewalks. The prospect of another hot summer with no new power plants to drive air conditioners.
In the wake of stalled government talks, Iraqi institutions have begun to drift -- their lack of oversight and leadership seriously hampering efforts to curb militias, rebuild infrastructure and get on with the work of governing.
The long list of moribund projects has grown, and public officials whose jobs are stymied by the word "interim" have begun to despair. "Summer is coming and we need to get started on many projects," said Raad Haris, a Ministry of Electricity official. "They cannot be done unless a government is formed."
That leaves a familiar face in charge of daily production of electricity: former exile leader Ahmad Chalabi, who once had designs on running the country. His decisions, however, may have more effect on the average Iraqi than those of the political factions that failed again Monday to find a consensus candidate for prime minister.
In the courtroom where former President Saddam Hussein is being tried, meanwhile, prosecutors who themselves have been charged with Baath Party membership have not been fully investigated, said Ali Lami, an official with the De-Baathification Committee, which has yet to meet with government officials to discuss the charges.
"Unfortunately, this is not doable since it appears that the Cabinet could not send a representative because the politicians are busy in meetings to establish a new government," Lami said. "We are hoping that we could sort things out before the next episode of Saddam's trial begins."
The Ministry of Human Rights, which investigates current and past abuses, has only three offices in the country. Plans to put one in each of the 18 provinces to make it easier for victims outside Baghdad to lodge their complaints have fallen by the wayside.
"The minister can't take decisive actions because she feels she is a guest of the ministry," ministry official Kamil Amin said of his boss, interim Human Rights Minister Nermine Othman.
"Iraq is facing a very complex political crisis," said Hessian Fallouji, a Sunni member of parliament. "There is no practical excuse for this delay.
"Four months have passed and the count continues," he said. "Obviously, this delay will negatively affect the social and economic standards of the country."
Little hope of change emerged Monday, when representatives of the Shiite Muslim bloc announced they had further delayed a decision on whether to withdraw their nomination of interim Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, and have not decided who might be palatable to Kurds and Sunni Arabs.
U.S. officials worry that the political vacuum has emboldened sectarian militias and insurgents, and they have called on the interim government to establish a plan to control them.
"What we want to see is the rule of law with the government in control of what's going on in Iraq," a senior military official said. "That's what we want to see, and it's tough when the government has not stood up."
During the four-month postelection limbo, violence has increased dramatically. Piles of bodies are uncovered daily in Baghdad. Last week, at least 80 people died when suicide bombers attacked a Shiite mosque during Friday prayers.
On Monday, the U.S. military said three soldiers had died in western Al Anbar province in incidents Saturday and Sunday. And in Fallouja on Monday, gunmen and American troops clashed after a mortar attack on a U.S. base.
Iraqi police said four people were killed, but the U.S. military said it could not confirm the clashes or casualties.
Near Balad, north of Baghdad, U.S.-led troops killed a woman and wounded three men in a gun battle at what was described as a safe house for insurgents. Near the southern city of Basra, Qais Abdul Lateef, a local mayor, was gunned down while driving home, police said.
In the capital, squatters continue to occupy city-owned buildings, including a former air force facility, and illegal vendors have grown brazen, said Jafar Ali, head of a city council in the upscale Mansour neighborhood.
"We gave them a warning a few weeks ago and the next day we found them equipped with weapons, and they said that they are ready to defend their" belongings and goods, Ali said. "We want the next government, which will be more powerful, to help us in performing our job."
Times staff writers Saif Rasheed, Caesar Ahmed and Shamil Aziz contributed to this report.