Monday,17 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1371, (30 November - 6 December 2017)
Monday,17 June, 2019
Issue 1371, (30 November - 6 December 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Iraq’s dubious anti-graft drive

Iraq’s new anti-corruption campaign could be mostly posturing in the run-up to next year’s elections, writes Salah Nasrawi

Iraq’s dubious anti-graft drive
Iraq’s dubious anti-graft drive

As Iraq prepares for national elections in 2018, embattled Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi has been doing his best to convince the public that he is best equipped to restore confidence in the country’s political system that has been sapped by corruption and inefficiency.

With general elections scheduled for next May, Al-Abadi is pushing forward on an anti-corruption platform as he seeks a second term in office and seizes on successes in fighting the Islamic State (IS) group and blocking the Iraqi Kurds’ separation from Iraq.

Iraqis have been demanding action against endemic corruption, seen as a stumbling block to stability and development, and consequently many parties have highlighted corruption-fighting in their early campaigning.

Speculation is high that voters will punish political parties that will suffer bitter defeats at the polls, with voters using the elections to punish them for inefficiency and graft scandals.

Al-Abadi has vowed to fight corruption in state institutions, which is believed to be deeply entrenched in bureaucratic and political systems. He has also set up a supreme government council to supervise the country’s anti-corruption bodies.

In his weekly press briefing on 21 November, Al-Abadi accused unnamed officials of “trying to set Iraq on fire” and “distracting” his government from fighting terrorism.

Al-Abadi did not divulge details about his plans to fight graft, but media reports suggested that a government committee he has named has finished investigations into dozens of corruption cases.

At least 45 senior officials in the government of former prime minister Nouri Al-Maliki have been questioned in corruption cases, including nine ministers, 20 deputy ministers, and dozens of senior officials and former generals in the security forces.

Close relatives and associates of Al-Maliki were also said to have been under investigation, according to reports.

In addition to former officials, investigators are reportedly probing entrepreneurs who have received lucrative contracts because of their relations with top officials.

In order to bolster the campaign, Al-Abadi has formally asked the United Nations to help in efforts to reveal the fate of billions of dollars missing from the country’s coffers since 2003.

UN investigators have reportedly uncovered graft at several government departments, including cases against “big fish” who have stashed billions of dollars abroad.

But it remains to be seen if Al-Abadi will take action to bring them down.

Meanwhile, the disclosures have encouraged party leaders to urge Al-Abadi to order probes into other allegations of corruption in the security forces that are blamed for military pitfalls such as the fall of Mosul to IS militants in 2014.

Still, the stakes are high for Al-Abadi’s anti-graft drive. Many Iraqis feel that he is not truly purging the corruption that was sapping the system and making the rule of law prevail.

Corruption is rampant in Iraq, and most of the country’s political elites are believed to be involved in one type of corruption or another. Reports are rife about their manipulation of the country’s rich resources, which they use to secure control of the government.

Corruption in all its forms of bribery, embezzlement, extortion, patronage, cronyism, fraud, legal plunder, nepotism and plutocracy has become systematic and institutionalised in Iraq.

It has benefited the ruling political groups, their cronies and allies in business, and hurt ordinary Iraqis. Out of the nearly $1 trillion Iraq is believed to have made in oil sales since 2003, just a small fraction has gone to development or reached the country’s public services, while the rest has been lost to local patronage politics.

Corruption is at the root of the country’s problems. Together with political turmoil, it has squandered the country’s potential and was a key reason for Iraq’s turning into a failed state.

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

Frustration with corruption and mismanagement has fuelled mistrust and anger against the government. Since 2011, Baghdad and other cities have seen weeks of protests against corruption and the poor quality of public services, especially power cuts that leave Iraqis with only a few hours of electricity per day.

In 2015, a huge protest against corruption in Iraq turned violent when clashes erupted between demonstrators demanding reform and the security forces. Dozens were reportedly injured.

It is not clear how Al-Abadi will translate his promises to combat corruption into action, however, though he has insisted that his anti-graft campaign is not just “sloganeering” or electioneering.

Paradoxically, corruption remains a very significant problem under Al-Abadi’s rule, and the oil industry is one of the most corrupt sectors in Iraq. Efforts to bring transparency to the country’s oil exports, which account for over 90 per cent of budget revenues, has failed despite pressure by Iraqi NGOs and international watchdogs.

Last week, the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (EITI), which monitors oil exports worldwide, suspended Iraq’s status as a compliant country and gave it 18 months to carry out corrective actions.

The EITI board concluded that additional work was needed to demonstrate adequate progress across the sector in implementing its standards.

The forthcoming elections are unlikely to do much to clean up the corruption, however, and Al-Abadi’s anti-graft campaign has so far failed to generate public excitement. It seems unlikely that it will win many seats.

More than three years after he came to power on a reform platform, the promised changes promoted by Al-Abadi have become a mirage. Almost all his promises to fight corruption and introduce political and economic reforms have failed to materialise.

Iraqi voters remain disappointed by the slow anti-corruption efforts, as well as government mismanagement of basic services such as education, healthcare and electricity provision.

However, Al-Abadi may be building on a string of other successes under his premiership to win re-election. These include the Iraqi security forces’ successes in driving IS militants out from cities they seized in 2014 and his confrontation with Kurdish leaders over their plans to break away from Iraq.

But Iraq’s silent majority is clearly fed up with the injustices of politicians ripping off their country, and it does not want anti-corruption buzzwords to be bandied around in empty sloganeering.

Iraq’s political system is also consumed by infighting and defections, and the political divide between the country’s Sunni, Shia and Kurdish blocs has worsened as the government has remained deadlock over communal conflicts.

As the elections approach, many politicians are now resorting to the public exposure of their opponents’ corruption, rather than attempting to eliminate the practice or bring the wrongdoers to justice.

Iraq is rotten to the core, and fighting the elections on an anti-graft platform is certainly evidence of how much the country needs to tackle this acute problem.

But if Al-Abadi’s anti-corruption drive ends up in simply more electioneering and is aimed at aggregating power for power’s sake, it will end up simply instilling more frustration and indignation over the country’s corrupt ruling oligarchy.

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