“Everybody is corrupt, from the top of society to the bottom. Including me” said Mishan al-Jabouri, one of the anti-corruption officials in Iraq.
Iraq was ranked 161 out of 168 countries in Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index. As discussed in my previous blog, corruption exacerbates Iraq’s already severe economic challenges. Its financial resources are particularly stretched by both the war with the so-called Islamic State (IS), and the fall of oil prices. As things are, Iraq might not be able to pay some of its civil servants, or build essential infrastructure in the next financial year.
Many hoped that Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi would be able to make some progress in unifying the nation under an accountable and representative government. However, fighting corruption in Iraq is a truly overwhelming challenge. Al-Abadi’s anti-corruption measures are facing a tremendously adverse political atmosphere. Corruption is sustained by strong militia parties whose proliferation depends on the expansion of corruption. They overpower state institutions, use them to redistribute oil revenues, and then buy the allegiance of clientelist networks.
THE EXTENT OF CORRUPTION
Corruption is not new in Iraq. It was already widespread under the Saddam Hussein and Baath party regimes. However, there is a broad consensus that corruption peaked after the invasion in 2003. The state of lawlessness, war, and chaos has created the ideal climate for corruption to flourish. This context has created an increasing feeling of impunity among senior officials and allowed for the intimidation of those working in anti-corruption.
In addition, given its high dependence on oil revenues (almost 90% of Iraq’s revenue), and like several other oil-rich economies, Iraq has characteristics that may encourage corruption. Oil funds, like all natural resources, create competition for financial benefit and are often prone to embezzlement. This is especially the case when resources are managed by weak institutions that struggle to enforce accountability. Competition for oil funds also provokes conflict, which in turn weakens the government’s accountability and the rule of law.
There are many forms of corruption that prevail in Iraq. Bureaucratic state corruption is one of the main forms as the public sector is in charge of managing key aspects of the economy. According to the 2013 Transparency International Global Corruption Barometer survey, users of public services were most likely to have paid a bribe when coming into contact with public officials for land services (39%), the police (35%), and registry and permit services (27%).
Corruption also exists at the highest levels of government and is sustained by widespread nepotism and clientelism. The context of war along with the fragile institutions of a failed state have encouraged militia and political leaders to create their own support base by redistributing jobs and public funds. Patronage based on party, family or community determines who gets a job. The price of oil then play a major role in the ability of political figures to buy allegiances and distribute spoils. This has been the main feature of Iraqi politics since 2003. Former PM Nuri Al-Maliki was accused of filling senior government positions based on sectarian and political allegiances to benefit his supporters and the Shia population who had previously been excluded from power under Hussein’s regime.
Here are a few figures that illustrate the extent of corruption. The Commission for Integrity revealed that from 2008 until 2012, 89 arrest orders related to alleged corruption offences were issued against high ranking individuals of director-general level or higher. In 2012 alone, 12 ministers, 97 heads of department or higher, 7 parliamentary candidates, and 11 governorate council candidates were summoned to court to be tried for allegations of corruption.
AL-ABADI AND THE ANTI-CORRUPTION CAMPAIGN
Accusations of corruption and sectarianism led to the ousting of former PM al-Maliki in 2014 and to the selection of Haidar al-Abadi as the new Prime Minister. The sudden rise of IS and the need for an alternative and more unifying figure, helped oust al-Maliki. Now, al-Abadi is left to walk a tightrope along extremely complex domestic and regional politics to achieve his goals.
Following popular demonstrations that called for the end of corruption and the building of an accountable government and a strong army to face IS, al-Abadi announced in August 2015 a package of reforms to enhance general governmental performance and increase accountability. These reforms could deprive officials of most of their privileges and limit financial and administrative corruption. This would relieve the burden on the Iraqi treasury and release some funds to pay the delayed salaries of civil servants. These reforms were backed by the highest Shiite religious authority in Iraq, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
Despite the religious and popular support for al-Abadi’s reforms, implementing them is proving much more difficult than expected. After briefly approving the reforms, the parliament in November revoked any mandate for al-Abadi to conduct them. This revocation is the result of power struggles within the Shiite camp and fears that these reforms would harm political parties and militias. The reforms were viewed as unconstitutional by the parliament.
Although the proposed reforms are not deep enough to solve the structural problems in the Iraqi system, they are bold enough to disturb the balance of power in the parliament and stir opposition. Yet one of the most serious challenges to the reforms is their potential effect on the Shiite political parties that are supporting militias in the fight against IS.
POWER STRUGGLE IN THE SHIITE CAMP
Despite their unified attitude against IS, Shiite militias and associated political parties differ in the way they think about their country’s future.
The Popular Mobilization Forces (Al-Hashd al-Shabi), an umbrella organization mainly composed of Shiite militias, represents the unified reaction of the Shiite parties against IS as well as their divergent reactions towards Abadi’s reforms. Some of the parties involved in al-Hashd fear that al-Abadi is attempting to marginalize militia parties. Examples of those opposed to the reforms include leaders of the Badr Organization and the founder of the Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq paramilitary group.
Yet other opposing Shiite groups, also involved in al-Hashd, are increasing pressure on al-Abadi to deliver on his promises of reform and anti-corruption measures. The highest Shiite religious authority is backing the reform package, further increasing the pressure on al-Abadi to quickly show results.
One of the Shiite figures in favour of the measures, Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of a very powerful militia in al-Hashd, led one of the largest protest rallies in Iraq’s modern history, in February 2016. Tens of thousands of Iraqis took to the streets of Baghdad to demonstrate against corruption and the government’s ‘backtracking on reform plans’, as called by al-Sadr. He told the crowd that they should be prepared to continue their protest movement until Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi met demands to implement “fundamental” reforms.
Major reforms are deeply needed. However, the row over the initial reforms reflect the complex reality of the Shiite power struggle. Trapped in this militia-led power structure, al-Abadi is fighting an uphill battle to implement his reforms.