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Will Iraq Ever Change?
Popular and Political Tide Turning Against PM's Troubled, But Vital, Reforms

Mustafa Habib
Iraqi PM Haider al-Abadi set in motion some of the most important political reforms in the country in over a decade. First they were welcomed. But now locals are turning critical – and some of the criticisms are valid.
17.09.2015  |  Baghdad
Demonstrators in Tahrir Square on August 9 raise placards in favour of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. (photo: Facebook group)
Demonstrators in Tahrir Square on August 9 raise placards in favour of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. (photo: Facebook group)

Several weeks have passed since Iraq's Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, announced a series of ambitious reforms. Al-Abadi's sweeping plan was intended to change the way political business was being done in Baghdad and, it seemed, reallocate resources from the political elite to help the average Iraqi on the street.

Al-Abadi's reforms were greeted with approval by thousands of Iraqis who had been demonstrating against corruption in the government and calling for better state services like power and water. This level of approval was only bolstered when the country’s highest Shiite Muslim religious authority, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, also backed al-Abadi's plan and called upon all Iraqis to support it.

However now that some time has passed since the reforms were announced those same demonstrators are not holding their banners supporting al-Abadi quite as high. Jokes about the Prime Minister describe him as “the anaesthetist”, implying that he managed to calm the protesters down but has yet to achieve anything real. Other banners say the protesters plan to “withdraw the authorization” they gave him.

Electricity supply is still poor, water is still polluted, there are still traffic jams and we see that politicians are still enjoying their privileges.

Of course, reforming a government and purging it of corruption was never going to be an easy, or short-term, project. A complex equation of legal, political and administrative factors would equal long-term success. But there are also some criticisms of the planned reforms that seem justified – for example, the lack of transparency in decision making, the speed at which the reforms were formulated and the logistical mess it's all going to make.

One of the first parts of al-Abadi's reformation plan involved abolishing some of the country’s most senior jobs – the three vice presidents and three deputy presidents. The politicians holding these positions expressed surprise when they were told about this, saying they only heard about the decision via the local media. And as it was, this particular reform might be a while: two of the Vice Presidents – former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and former Speaker of the House, Osama al-Nujaifi – protested and were preparing cases against the decision, saying the move is unconstitutional.

This was pointed out later and al-Abadi actually took a step backwards, asking Parliament to dissolve the posts because he was not actually empowered to do this. MPs did as he asked – and particularly because of the support the reforms had from the religious establishment – but many blocs later complained, saying that such high level decisions needed to be made in a more transparent way.

Another planned reform involved the devolution of a handful of ministries with others being integrated into other portfolios.

Several ministries were to be combined – Science and Technology would join with Higher Education, Environment was integrated with Health, Municipalities with Construction and Housing and Tourism and Antiquities with Culture.

But politically, logistically and legally this is a particularly complicated task. One of the problems is that salaries in various ministries vary. The average salary of an employee at the Ministry of the Environment is estimated to be around US$500 while the average salary at the Ministry of Health is US$800. The question of how to integrate the two pay scales fairly has not yet been answered – and the same problem exists at some of the other ministries to be integrated.

Additionally the Minister for the Environment, Sunni Muslim MP, Qutaiba al-Jibouri, was far from happy about the decision. It was not constitutional, he said in a statement. “Additionally the Ministry of the Environment plays a supervisory role while the Ministry of Health is concerned with services,” al-Jibouri argued.

As many Iraqis also know, some of the ministries are largely ineffective, having really only been created in order to give some senior ranked politician a job.

In fact, as many Iraqis also know, some of the ministries are largely ineffective and don't really do a lot. They were created between 2005 and 2009 in order to give out jobs to political leaders who demanded high ranking positions in return for their support. There were not enough ministries to appease everyone so more were created.

“The decision to integrate ministries should also have included the big ministries such as the Ministry of Electricity with the Oil Ministry, or the Ministry of Agriculture with the Ministry of Water Resources,” a State of Law MP, Hisham al-Suhail, told NIQASH. “These ministries employ thousands, they have many senior positions and they cost the government huge amounts of money.”

As for the ministries that are to be completely dissolved, what becomes of their employees?, critics ask. The government made the decision that they should have their salaries paid. But whether the employees will stay unemployed or whether they should be moved to other government jobs, nobody knows. And many are saying that all this should have been thought about before the decision to dissolve the ministries was made.

All these decisions were made without consulting any of the political blocs that it would impact upon – for instance, several Iraqi Kurdish politicians lost their ministerial positions - and those blocs accused al-Abadi of deliberately targeting certain political groups.

Because of this, many politicians fear a repeat of what happened under former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Both al-Abadi and al-Maliki are members of the same party, the Dawa party, and the same coalition, Rule of Law, and they worry that, while some political parties lose power, al-Abadi's party gains it.

As officials moved to implement the decisions, these fears began to manifest themselves almost immediately. For example, the Ministry of Human rights was one of those that was to be dissolved. The Minister responsible for the portfolio is Mohammed al-Bayati, a Shiite Muslim and member of the Turkman ethnic group. He said he too only found out about the end of his job through local press. Shiite Muslim Turkmen in the northern city of Kirkuk then organised a demonstration, during which they blocked the road connecting Kirkuk and Baghdad. They insist that the Turkmen should be represented in the Iraqi Cabinet and that they should have a ministry. The Turkmen also threatened to withdraw their people from the militias fighting against the extremist Islamic State group.

The reforms haven't been planned properly, nor have they been transparent enough, critics say. 

“The Kurdish and other parties, both Sunni and Shiite, are concerned that power is being monopolized by just one party,” Hoshyar Abdullah, an Iraqi Kurdish MP, told NIQASH. “Of course, our alliance supports reforms. But we want transparent and legal reforms, based on professional standards.”

The latest decision for reforms, announced in early September, is the dismissal of 123 deputy ministers and general managers within the government, mostly those with the rank of deputy minister or director general. Apparently the reason was to save money, clawing back the salaries and benefits these individuals accrue. However, as most politicians know, these jobs are also given out according to political quotas, to ensure that all sects and ethnicities get an equal share of power and money. And it is equally obvious that neither the individuals involved, nor their political parties, will accept this decision without protest.

Additionally, if the personnel are forced to retire, will they still get the large pensions owed to them? This kind of payout could cause further problems for the cash strapped government and nullify any benefits of the reform.

Another of al-Abadi's reforms – the plan to cut large security details for government officials - has also run into trouble. The personnel from these details were supposed to be transferred to the Ministry of Interior and Defence and the men were meant to assist in the fight against the Islamic State extremists.

However there are two big issues: Firstly the security staffers get paid a lot more than the military and police. And secondly many of the security staff say they volunteered to work for MPs, not to join the army. They are threatening to resign if anybody tries to send them to the army.

All of which means that now, despite greeting the plans for reform enthusiastically at first, nobody is really that keen on them anymore. Politicians fear that the reforms haven't been planned properly, nor have they been transparent enough to allay fears of a power grab by certain political parties.

In Baghdad there has been a lot of discussion about al-Abadi's reforms, both official meetings by activist groups and analysts and unofficial debates. During one seminar held by the Iraqi Council for Peace and Solidarity, independent MP Wael Abdul Latif put it this way: “Government reforms cannot touch the heart of the Iraqi problem. Corrupt senior officials should be held accountable but this will never happen unless the judiciary is also reformed”.

Another big problem is, and possibly always will be, Iraq's sectarian and ethnic quota system. Despite the support for al-Abadi's reforms it is important to remember that al-Abadi is actually part of this system and, in fact, that he has his job because of it. The reforms he has planned may in fact help dismantle that system and deprive him of any power, which in turn means that his reforms are crippled before they are even close to being implemented.

At the same time it is also true that, with the country split along ethnic and religious lines the way it is – the three major groups are Shiite Muslim, Sunni Muslim and Kurdish – no important decision works unless all parties approve. Therefore those decisions must also fit with the existing, political-philosophical status quo – that is, the quota system. It is true that these decisions for reform are some of the most important decisions made by Iraqi politicians over the past 13 years. But it is also true that not all the political actors were consulted about them – whether this dooms them to failure remains to be seen.

Meanwhile ordinary Iraqis who have been protesting on the country's streets every Friday, don't seem to have any answers either. And they say they haven't seen any impact on their own lives – although admittedly it may be a bit early for this.

“Al-Abadi's reforms were ineffective and their aim was to silence the demonstrators,” argues Shamkhi Jabr, one of the activists regularly demonstrating in Baghdad's Tahrir Square. “So far we haven't felt any changes, not on the political level or in the services we want to see improve.”

“The reforms are just a political game,” adds Qassim al-Rubaie, a construction worker from the suburbs of Sadr City in Baghdad. “We didn't see any change in our lives. Electricity supply is still poor, water is still polluted, traffic jams are still there and we see that politicians are still enjoying their privileges. We just ask: So where are these reforms they are talking about?”

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