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Tougher Than the Islamic State:
No Winners In Iraq’s New ‘War On Corruption’

Mustafa Habib
Every day new anti-corruption cases are announced in Iraq's new "war on corruption". Yet they achieve virtually nothing. This may well be a war that nobody in Iraq can win.
7.12.2017  |  Baghdad
Thankless job: Head of the Integrity Commission, Hassan al-Yasiri, gives a press conference.
Thankless job: Head of the Integrity Commission, Hassan al-Yasiri, gives a press conference.

Last week the Iraqi prime minister, Haidar al-Abadi, said that now that the war against the extremist group known as the Islamic State had been won, that a new war should be fought – and this one would be against corruption. Last year the advocacy organisation Transparency International says that Iraq was the 166th most corrupt country in the world out of 176. And corruption of all kinds has been a problem in the country for decades. It’s almost a way of life here. So this will be far from an easy fight. In fact, it may prove to be more difficult than the fight against the Islamic State group.

Iraqi politics functions according to a kind of unofficial sectarian quota system that was established after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime.  In order to avoid sectarian infighting among politicians, US administrators thought it best to split the most important positions in Iraq’s new Parliament between the three major ethnic and sectarian groups in the country; that is, the Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims and Iraqi Kurdish. Over time though, many analysts believe this practice has come to hamper Iraqi democracy, with leaders being picked for their sect or ethnicity, rather than on merit.

And the system is far more problematic than that. In reality, it is based on two further principles: How much power each appointment gives to the person who gets the job, and therefore how much money the appointment can generate.

This current war on corruption is associated with election fever. And anyway no single person can carry out this battle all by themselves. 

Every party in the Iraqi government today also has what is known as an “economics office”, a bureau tasked with raising funds for the political party using the government jobs held by the members themselves. According to insiders, who cannot be named for security reasons, these offices coordinate making deals and signing contracts behind the scenes so that investments and kickbacks are shared with the political party itself.

This new anti-corruption campaign will target three basic issues, a senior government official who is part of the new project, told NIQASH, on condition of anonymity. Firstly, there will be warrants issued against individuals who have illegally smuggled money out of the country. It is thought that an estimated US$100 billion has left Iraq this way. Secondly, authorities will take a close look at contracts for failed projects and investments; there are estimated to be 6,028 of these types of projects on which the government has spent about US$250 billion. And thirdly, problems with currency auctions involving the Iraqi central bank and high ranking politicians.

“Iraq’s political parties fight one another about politics and security in front of the whole world,” this official continued. “But behind the scenes they are doing deals with one another through these economics offices. For example, it is possible to buy a job through an auction – this includes posts in the federal government and on provincial councils.”

And corruption even goes beyond this, the official noted. “When a person holds a senior position he pledges to finance his own political party from the government’s budget – he does this by granting contracts to companies affiliated with his party. Most of the political parties do this. That’s why no one political party would complain about corruption in federal ministries because they know if they do that, then other politicians will complain about them.”

Despite the new anti-corruption campaign having such a clear eyed assessment of the problems, it’s still going to be a difficult task. The fight against corruption has historically been a failure in Iraq.

 

Integrity Commission meet in Baghdad.

 

For example, the Iraqi Commission of Integrity was formed after 2003 to look into accusations of corruption. It seems to have been unable to achieve much, despite the fact that dozens of officials were accused of corrupt practices over the ensuing years. The Commission has not been able to sentence any official until after they had managed to escape the country. That includes former Trade Minister Abdel Falah al-Sudani and former Electricity Minister Ayham al-Samarraie.  

The Offices of the Inspectors General was another kind of anti-corruption body, charged with monitoring waste and abuse of public funding. But they have also failed to achieve much. Often the ministers or their staff have succeeded in controlling the inspectors because the inspectors’ own offices are usually inside the ministry they are tasked with watching.

Some of the inspectors were even well known for getting involved in corrupt practices. For example, Adel Muhsen, the Health Ministry's inspector general, was accused of doing dodgy deals - but when his file was transferred to the Commission of Integrity he too managed to escape the country.

On Nov. 20, the Iraqi parliament voted to close these inspectors general offices down, a clear indication of their abject failure.

More recently, al-Abadi decided that the administrative board of Najaf’s airport should be dissolved due to corruption. But it never happened. The board of directors, which has members belonging to the Badr organization and the Sadrist movement refused to hand over the keys. The airport provides part of the each of these parties’ funding.

Apparently due to problems within the system itself, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has tasked international specialists with looking at provincial and federal contracts for various investments or stalled projects over the past decade. The government refuses to furnish anyone with any further information on the makeup of this specialist team though. Leaked information suggests the team will begin work next year.

To kick off the anti-corruption campaign last week, parliament began questioning several ministers who have been accused of corruption. The Minister of Communications, Hassan Khadim al-Rashid, was questioned but there were no tangible results. During questioning of the country’s Minister of Electricity, Qassim al-Fahadawi, there was an insufficient quorum because some members of his political bloc withdrew from the session. Political parties protect their own members by forming alliances with other parties, says one MP, Hanan al-Fatlawi.

“Parliament was supposed to question the minister of electricity, but his own bloc agreed to boycott the session,” she explains.

Despite this kind of thing though, most of the political parties announced their support of al-Abadi’s campaign against corruption. They clearly see that this will be a major issue during coming election campaigns and they all want to appear to have done something about it.

Some of them have apparently made genuine moves in this direction. The cleric Muqtada al-Sadr expelled dozens of members of his political movement for corruption and the leading Dawa party pushed Salah Abdul Razzaq, a senior member and the former governor of Baghdad, out of their party after he was accused of corrupt practices.

But it is extremely hard to know who is and is not corrupt in Iraq. The accusation of corruption has been used as a political weapon for years, a way of getting rid of political adversaries.

In fact, al-Abadi’s critics have already said they believe he is just using the anti-corruption campaign as a way to rid himself of political enemies and anyone who might compete with him during the next elections.

Others say that al-Abadi himself could be indicted on corruption charges for things he did when he was a former minister and before that, an MP. They accuse him of corrupt deals when he was the country’s first minister of finance after 2004 and when he was involved in the parliament’s investment and financial committees. 

“The prosecution of corrupt officials should only be done according to the correct legal procedures, and there should be no exceptions,” says MP Salah al-Jibouri, who added that he feared that the anti-corruption campaign would be used to target political enemies once again.

Senior Iraqi politician and former prime minister, Ayad Allawi, believes the problem goes even deeper than corruption. “This current war on corruption is associated with election fever,” he asserts. “And anyway no single person can carry out this battle all by themselves. In fact the first step in the fight against corruption is to reject the political quota system.” 

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