Iraq reforms on back burner as Abadi weighs options
Baghdad - When hundreds of thousands of Iraqis poured into the streets in the summer of 2015 demanding better living conditions, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi quickly launched reforms.
Abadi’s initial steps included disposing of political adversaries in and outside government, vowing improved services and infrastructure and paying closer attention to pocketbook issues that worry Iraqis.
However, Abadi’s options are limited in the face of strong opposition by conservatives in parliament and the country’s powerful Shia religious parties, who fear change may erode their new clout in the country after decades of being sidelined under Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.
Trouble also looms from falling oil prices, which decreased revenues needed to shore up Iraq’s sluggish economy, revamp the poor health care and education systems and provide stable electricity services to Iraq’s 34 million citizens.
“No doubt, there are parties and individuals whose interest will be at stake, if real reforms were implemented,” Sunni lawmaker Hamid al-Mutlaq said. “There are people who are involved in corruption or are abusing their power and they will spare no effort to foil Abadi’s reforms.”
The latest move by Abadi was a call for a cabinet reshuffle to bring in technocrats to replace ministers appointed on the basis of political affiliations in line with promised reforms. Many of the ministers are protected by ethnic and religious parties dominating parliament.
Political groups responded defiantly. The powerful Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, comprising influential religious Shia clergy who hold 31 seats in the 328-member legislature, said in a mid-February statement that Abadi was the “only one who should be replaced by a technocrat prime minister”. Parliament Speaker Salim al-Jubouri, from the Sunni Islamic Party, said there could be no cabinet reshuffle without parliament’s approval.
The reform push comes as Baghdad faces serious challenges that include security deterioration caused by sectarianism, widespread corruption, disputes with Kurds seeking to split away from Iraq and dwindling state revenues due to low oil prices.
Insufficient funds are the most serious problem. Iraq, which sits atop the world’s second largest proven oil reserves, heavily depends on revenues from the sale of petroleum. It has been hit hard by the steep drop in oil prices and some experts suggest that Iraq is selling cheap oil outside the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to help make up for the cash shortfall.
The dwindling reserves coincide with a costly war in which the Iraqi Army is battling to drive out the Islamic State (ISIS) militants from Iraqi lands they seized in the past two years.
Parliament approved an $88 billion budget for 2016 based on oil prices estimated at $45 per barrel. Current prices are in the $30-$35 per barrel range. A deficit of $20 billion is projected. The budget could also be undermined by a lack of expected funds from the sale of oil from two major oilfields in northern Iraq — Bay Hassan and Kirkuk.
With the Kurds having their own financial crunch, they are exporting large quantities of oil from those fields without sharing the revenues with the government in Baghdad, abandoning a 2015 bilateral agreement. So far, measures taken by Abadi to reduce corruption and government expenditure are seen as insufficient. He cancelled six posts of vice-presidents and deputy prime ministers. The three vice-presidents, including his former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, an influential Shia politician, however, claim that Abadi’s move against them is unconstitutional.
Baghdad-based economic analyst Khamis al-Dulaimi said Abadi has been avoiding dealing with and stopping inefficient or corrupt ministers, who are backed by powerful political parties. Many top officials and cabinet ministers are suspected of being involved in corruption, ranging from money laundering, spending on non-existent projects and funnelling state funds to their parties. “No one should think that powerful parties are ready to give in on the privileges they enjoy under such a weak government,” Dulaimi said. Clearly, Abadi is well-aware of this.
In remarks made in late 2015, he predicted he might lose his life if he were to continue with the reforms.
Baghdad resident Akram Aziz said: “It is the religious parties and sectarian politicians who brought the disaster to us. The prime minister should stop all the groups that are above the law.”
Another Baghdad resident Hussein Aoun said Iraq was “in need for a strong statesman to clean up the mess, someone who is different from [one] who gives a lot of promises with very little actions”.