Wednesday,22 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1310, (1 - 7 September 2016)
Wednesday,22 August, 2018
Issue 1310, (1 - 7 September 2016)

Ahram Weekly

No way forward on Iraqi graft

No one really cares about the Iraqi parliament’s drive against graft, writes Salah Nasrawi

Al-Ahram Weekly

Giving himself, his secretary and his chief security officer lucrative housing stipends, travelling in private jets at government expense and giving salaries and travel allowances to more than 400 bodyguards from the state’s coffers.

He also renovated a villa for Masoud Barzani, president of the Regional Government of Kurdistan and leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), and his nephew at a cost of some $25,000 paid by his ministry.

These are just a few of the corruption charges made by an Iraqi Shia lawmaker against Kurdish Finance Minister and senior KDP member Hoshyar Zebari at a parliamentary question time last week.

Zebari was the second Iraqi minister to be brought before the legislature last month for investigations into corruption, fraud and misuse of public office.

Shortly before his questioning began on 25 August, the parliament voted to fire Sunni Defense Minister Khaled Al-Obeidi after he was questioned over corruption in weapons contracts.

The probe into the two senior ministers gives the impression that the Iraqi ruling class has finally decided to fight the corruption which many experts think has reached unprecedented heights in the country as the Iraqis themselves suffer from economic hardships caused by low oil prices and government mismanagement.

But no one seems to be impressed, and there are reasons to doubt the intentions behind MPs’ requests to question senior officials over corruption as well as the capacity of the parliament, as well as the country’s anti-corruption agency and judiciary, to hold the powerful to account.

What the two parliamentary investigations have underlined is that Iraq’s fight against corruption is a dead-end street. The debates have showed that the more visible scandals may not necessarily mean that the country is becoming less corrupt.

Before Zebari’s questioning, the crusading lawmaker who belongs to a bloc led by former prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki promised to produce ten dossiers that contain “damning” evidence of corruption and misuse of public money against the finance minister.

Yet, the questions focussed on what many Iraqis consider as minor fraud and irregularities by Zebari, which they say are common among the upper reaches of Iraqi politics.

What is missing is a broader inquiry into the country’s widespread corruption which goes deep and involves politicians and government bureaucrats who thrive on graft, kickbacks and blatant bribery.  

Though Zebari denied ever having taken public money for personal gain and charged that the probe was politically motivated, a vote by the parliament showed a majority of lawmakers were not convinced by his answers.

He is now waiting for a vote of no confidence after 90 MPs signed a petition for his impeachment.

Corruption has long been endemic in Iraq. Since 2004, the international NGO Transparency International has put Iraq among the most corrupt countries in the world out of the nearly 200 surveyed.

Following widespread anti-corruption protests last year, Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi promised to institute reforms including tough measures to stop politicians from stealing the country’s wealth.

Demonstrations have continued throughout Iraq, and the protesters, largely supporters of Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, have stormed the fortified Green Zone in Baghdad that hosts key government offices at least twice and overrun the parliament building.

In July, the government said it had signed an agreement with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to help strengthen its capacity to detect, investigate and prosecute high-profile and complex corruption cases.

Under the terms of the agreement, the UNDP will recruit international investigators to provide expertise in combatting graft and money laundering and help in pursuing a wide array of investigative leads related to kleptocracy.

Last week some 20 experts were dispatched to Baghdad to help the Iraqi authorities to mentor and train Iraqi investigators. The lead investigators will be deployed within the country’s Integrity Commission and Higher Judicial Council.

But overall there is no evidence that fighting corruption in Iraq is getting anywhere. Widespread political and moral campaigning and media exposure of corruption have done little to contain Iraq’s “corruption eruption.”

Most of Iraq’s politicians are believed to be involved in one type of corruption or another, manipulating the country’s enormous wealth in order to create rents they can use to secure monopolies from the government.

Corruption has specially benefited the ruling elite and their cronies and allies in business and hurt ordinary Iraqis. The oil boom a few years ago brought huge wealth to the government, but most of this was stolen. 

Out of the nearly one trillion US dollars Iraq has made in oil sales since 2003, just a small fraction has gone to development projects or reached the country’s public services. The rest has been syphoned off by local patronage politics.

Today graft and fraud is deeply entrenched in the bureaucratic system of the country. Bribery, embezzlement, extortion, patronage, cronyism, the use of personal connections, fraud, legal plunder, nepotism and plutocracy are the mundane reality for most Iraqis.

Corruption is at the root of most of Iraq’s problems. Together with political instability, sectarian conflicts and the war against terrorism, it has squandered the country’s resources and was a key reason for Iraq turning into a failed state.

Few Iraqis believe that the current parliament’s show of intolerance for corruption will translate into more effective laws and stronger institutions.

Several factors, however, may be behind the sudden mobilisation to fight corruption by some lawmakers.

Whistle-blowers, social media and NGOs around Iraq are taking the lead in efforts to make corruption a public issue. The lively public debate has become embarrassing to the political groups whose surge of enthusiasm against corruption nevertheless still falls short of serious efforts to tackle the problem.

But the most immediate factor behind the renewed zeal to fight corruption may be concerns over the mounting public anger against Iraq’s political elite. Politicians fear that bubbling frustration about bribery and the deterioration of poor public services may boil over into a bigger anti-establishment movement.

Ostensibly, the MPs’ anti-corruption crusade is largely tactical manoeuvring by some political blocs to garner favourable publicity ahead of next year’s local elections and the parliamentary ballot in 2018.

They believe that by positioning themselves on the side of the protesters they will be able to negate the challenge presented by them. 

In this perspective, the campaign also seems to be part of the internecine war in Iraq’s politics. Iraq’s political and sectarian groups are mired in sanguine conflicts, and the anti-corruption drive is another tool in their usual bickering and backstabbing.

As was evident from the questioning of Al-Obeidi and Zebari no big corruption cases, such as billions of dollars’ of Ministry of Defense contracts or the Finance Ministry’s shady bank loans, were brought to the parliamentary debate.

Instead, the two crusading MPs in Al-Obeidi’s and Zebari’s cases brought petty cases of irregularity before the parliament while ignoring others which involved billions of dollars in graft. 

It is not surprising, therefore, that the parliament will not be able to pursue the same path with other former and current officials who are responsible for the devastating effects of corruption in Iraq, including the loss of nearly one trillion dollars in graft, fraud, kickbacks and misuse since 2003.

Most corruption cases in Iraq have never led to prosecution, and Al-Obeidi’s and Zebari’s cases are no exceptions.

Moreover, in the wake of an amnesty law enacted by the parliament last week which covers cases that have not yet been referred to court, it is highly unlikely that the two ministers will face justice.

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