Iraq reforms on back burner as Abadi weighs options

Friday 26/02/2016
Iraqi security forces close a bridge leading to the heavily guarded Green Zone during a demonstration in Baghdad on February 19th.

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”.