Abadi faces an insidious foe: Corruption

Friday 25/03/2016
Supporters of Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr

LONDON - Growing discontent over Iraq’s chronic and insti­tutionalised corruption spilled into the streets in recent weeks as protest­ers rallied in Baghdad and other cit­ies to demand that Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi fulfil promises of reform even as he battles the Islam­ic State (ISIS).
Muqtada al-Sadr, an influential Shia cleric, rallied his followers be­hind calls for the establishment of a new non-partisan government of technocrats to replace a governing regime that is riddled with graft and political patronage. Defying a government ban, thousands of Sadr supporters descended on Bagh­dad’s Green Zone on March 18th chanting: “Let’s get rid of them. They’re all thieves!”
It is hardly news that Iraq is one of the world’s most graft-ridden countries or that it suffers “exten­sive, pervasive corruption across all levels of government and sectors”, in the words of a 2015 Transparency International brief.
What is different in 2016, how­ever, is that tumbling oil reve­nues stemmed the cash flow that propped up the corrupt system. Also, Abadi in January designated 2016 as the year to eliminate cor­ruption after a stinging public re­buke from Grand Ayatollah Ali al- Sistani, Iraq’s highest Shia cleric, that nothing had been achieved.
Corruption in Iraq predates the US-led invasion of 2003 — remem­ber Saddam Hussein’s role in skim­ming off billions of dollars in the oil-for-food scandal? However, the containerloads of dollars Washing­ton airlifted in to grease the wheels of the occupation fuelled an appe­tite for graft.
Beyond anecdotal evidence that the public has few interactions with officials that do not involve the ex­change of bribes or favours, there have been frank admissions by re­gime insiders that the system is so corrupt that it is potentially beyond reform.
In a recent interview, Mishan al-Jabouri, a senior member of a parliamentary committee set up to tackle corruption, confessed to Guardian correspondent Mar­tin Chulov that he had personally taken a $5 million bribe. “There is no solution,” he said. “Everybody’s corrupt, from the top of society to the bottom. Everyone. Including me.”
Endemic corruption went into overdrive during the tenure of Ab­adi’s predecessor, Nuri al-Maliki, who was accused in 2015 by Iraq’s Commission of Integrity of siphon­ing off $500 billion in public funds during his eight-year premiership. That amounted to more than half of Iraq’s oil income for the period, the anti-corruption body alleged.
Graft not only hollowed out Iraq’s crumbling civil sector but im­perilled national security. Officers were appointed according to sec­tarian loyalties rather than military competence. A system in which salaries were handed to command­ers for distribution to troops led to the creation of “ghost” battalions of up to 30,000 non-existent soldiers. It was one factor blamed for the collapse of units that should have confronted the forces of the Islamic State (ISIS) that captured Mosul in June 2014.
Abadi began reforms soon af­ter he took office later that year, dismissing more than 100 high-ranking officers and officials. Many more have since been accused of corruption. Announcing further re­forms in mid-2015, the prime minis­ter said he intended to abolish three vice-presidential posts, including Maliki’s.
What was a chronic and perva­sive problem in 2014 is now an exis­tential one. Iraq’s budget is almost entirely dependent on oil revenue and it needs to sell oil at $45 a barrel to meet its obligations, including a massive bill for the salaries of a bloated corps of public employees.
In a depressed market, however, oil fell to less than $30 per barrel before recovering to around $40 in recent weeks on hopes of a deal among major producers on freezing output. That would bring some fi­nancial relief but it will not address the underlying problem of corrup­tion.
Even after a period of relatively high prices, treasury coffers were virtually empty when Hoshyar Ze­bari, Iraq’s Kurdish finance minis­ter, took over in late 2014. So tight was the fiscal squeeze that Iraq was forced to delay a $4.6 billion com­pensation payment to Kuwait for the 1990-91 occupation and seek in­ternational financial support.
Faced with the prospect of not being able to pay its 7 million pub­lic employees, almost one-third of the population, Iraqi authorities are considering introducing unfamiliar taxation, including a value-added tax. In graft-ridden societies, the general population is invariably re­sistant to the idea of paying taxes on the grounds that the proceeds will end up in the wrong hands. Therefore, even measures geared towards reform could provoke pub­lic unrest.
Sadr has emerged as the cheer­leader of popular discontent, eclipsing a protest movement that brought people to the streets to demand better public services. He has said the movement should be a peaceful one but has intimated that his followers might storm the Green Zone, the heavily fortified seat of government in Baghdad, if their de­mands are not met.