Challenges abound for Iraqi government

Being able to decide over government contracts remains a powerful tool for the political class and well-connected business people.
Sunday 13/01/2019
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi (C) attends a ceremony on the first anniversary of defeating ISIS in Baghdad,  December 10. (Reuters)
Turbulence ahead. Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi (C) attends a ceremony on the first anniversary of defeating ISIS in Baghdad, December 10. (Reuters)

LONDON - As 2018 closed, one of Iraq’s leading politicians, Ammar al-Hakim, had a positive message for Iraqis. Hakim highlighted the country’s victories against terrorism and a statement by his office said how society had rejected sectarianism and racism and was restoring unity.

The next phase, he reportedly added during a meeting with one of Bahrain’s most influential Shia clerics, would mean a “triumph” for services and development.

To what extent the government can improve services and foster development will be key issues defining the new year for Iraq.

“I think 2019 could be a very turbulent year if genuine progress is not made in addressing the issues that sparked the upheavals of the summer of 2018,” said Fanar Haddad, a senior research fellow at the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore. Beyond security, Haddad said, Iraqis were eager to see improvements in their daily lives through “services, governance, economic conditions and social justice.”

There was a wave of protests in the summer of 2018 in Iraq. As temperatures soared, people took to the streets to express anger at corruption and a lack of services, including unreliable electricity supplies and drinking water. The oil-rich province of Basra, a focal point of the grievances, was the site of deadly protests.

The country entered the year amid a political crisis over allocation of cabinet posts. Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi obtained parliamentary approval for most of his ministers but key posts such as the defence, interior and justice portfolios remain vacant.

The interior minister position will remain a point of contention between major political blocs. The Binaa bloc, led by Hadi al-Amiri, has shown little appetite for abandoning its pick for the Interior Ministry, Falih Alfayyadh.

“The status quo in 2019 will continue,” said Muhanad Seloom, an Iraq expert at the University of Exeter, but the government will stabilise. “By March, Abdul-Mahdi will have a full government,” Seloom added.

More than a year after the government announced the defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS), many parts of the country once under the control of the militant group are in dire need of reconstruction. Millions of people are displaced and ISIS has been carrying out deadly attacks.

A Damage and Needs Assessment published by the World Bank in January 2018 stated that Iraq’s reconstruction and recovery needs could total $88.2 billion, an estimate repeated by Iraqi officials, with $22.9 billion needed in the short term. The housing sector was estimated to require $17.4 billion to replace the 150,000 homes that were destroyed.

“The scale and urgency of [Iraq’s] challenges are immeasurably magnified in liberated areas where reconstruction has been slow, security precarious and displacement still widespread,” said Haddad.

In battles between ISIS and coalition of forces fighting it, several predominantly Sunni cities in western and northern Iraq were severely damaged. The destruction affects a community that felt marginalised prior to the ISIS onslaught.

In February, at a conference for the reconstruction of Iraq, governments and international organisations pledged $30 billion, less than half the amount estimated to be required.

Seloom said big promises were made at the conference but he said he doubted donors would deliver.

“I don’t think these cities will be reconstructed in 2019, not even in the next three years,” he said.

Observers linked the issue of reconstruction and lack of funds to corruption in Iraq. The country was ranked 169th out of 180 in Transparency International’s “Corruption Perceptions Index 2017.” Protesters in Iraq demanded a stronger stance against corruption and nepotism from the government.

In a sign of how important the issue has become, almost all political parties campaigned on a promise to tackle corruption before the parliamentary elections in May. However, corruption is “deeply rooted in the system,” said Seloom, “it’s not easy to root out.”

Corruption is also connected to the sectarian power-sharing system and struggle over ministries, which have served as a base for patronage. Being able to decide over government contracts remains a powerful tool for the political class and well-connected business people.

“I am not very optimistic and I don’t think many are about 2019,” said Seloom, stressing that he was optimistic for the longer term future of the country, citing among other things that people are airing their grievances more openly and that a generational change was under way. “Iraq has the potential to rise.”

“Not for nothing have some Iraqis labelled this ‘the last-chance government’,” Haddad concluded.

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