Little progress seen in Iraq amid government formation delay

Top Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said he had yet to see progress made in Iraq under the new prime minister.
Friday 30/11/2018
Iraq's Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi arrives for the opening of Baghdad International Fair in Baghdad, Iraq, on November 10. (Reuters)
Iraq's Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi arrives for the opening of Baghdad International Fair in Baghdad, Iraq, on November 10. (Reuters)

LONDON - Iraq’s parliament will vote in its next session on whether to approve the remaining eight candidates for Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi’s cabinet, amid doubts over the ability of the next government to make significant progress in the country.

In September, lawmakers only confirmed 14 out of the 22 ministers Abdul-Mahdi initially presented but granted his government confidence, allowing him to become prime minister.

Eight ministries, including the vital defence and interior portfolios, remain vacant. Parliament initially said it would vote on the remaining ministers early November but the vote was delayed due to political disagreements over nominees. The vote is now scheduled on December 4. 

The new government faces the daunting task of rebuilding much of the country after a devastating war against Islamic State, solving acute economic problems and power and water shortages, as well as reforming state institutions that critics say are paralysed by corruption. 

There appears, however, to be little optimism in the Iraqi streets or even the country’s highest religious institution.  

Iraq’s top Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said he had yet to see progress made under the new prime minister. His statement, issued on November 29, was the first comment by the top cleric on the new administration.

Sistani urged lawmakers and the government to work together to “improve the situation” in the country, adding that the government faced challenges including providing services to the people.

Sistani has said before that the new government should not include officials accused of corruption or misuse of power, or officials who promote sectarian separation.

The rival blocs in parliament sharply disagree on proposed candidates. A bloc led by populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr said ministers should not be people who are affiliated to political parties. Iran-backed rivals insisted on their own candidate for the interior post, which is the key sticking point. 

Among the thorniest challenges is rooting out corruption, which is widespread in Iraq. 

Iraq’s judiciary sentenced on November 29 a former trade minister and two other high-ranking officials in absentia to seven years in prison each on charges of corruption.

Investigators at the Integrity Commission said the three officials were found guilty of graft charges linked to rice imports, embezzling up to $14.3 million of public funds.

Its statement cited a decision issued by Baghdad’s Special Court for Crimes Against Integrity, saying the court “reached the sufficient threshold of proof, and sentenced each official to seven years in prison.”

It also granted banks the authority to freeze their assets.

It did not name those sentenced, but a source at the Commission told AFP they included former minister Malas Abdulkarim al-Kasnazani two senior trade ministry officials.

Kasnazani briefly served as trade minister in the previous government of Iraqi premier Haider al-Abadi, but was sacked in December 2015 for failing to show up to work.

At the time, he was widely believed to have fled to Amman after being slapped with an arrest warrant on charges of corruption.

Kasnazani is the second trade minister to be slapped with a jail term for corruption in the past year alone.

Abdel Falah al-Sudani, who served in the post following the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, had also been sentenced in absentia for graft over food imports.

He was extradited from Lebanon last year by Interpol, then handed over to Baghdad and subsequently sentenced to 21 years in prison.

Iraq is the 12th most corrupt country in the world, according to Transparency International
The embezzlement of public goods — from land to government funds — is a deeply rooted problem in a country with such a large public sector.

Corruption, shell companies and “phantom” public employees who receive salaries but do not work have cost the country the equivalent of $228 billion dollars since 2003, according to Iraq’s parliament. That figure is more than Iraq’s gross domestic product and nearly three times the annual budget.

(AW and news agencies)