Mass protests redirect Iraqi government’s attention to corruption

Protesters point to the country’s oil wealth and wonder why its benefits are not reaching them.
Sunday 05/08/2018
Iraqis take part in a demonstration in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, on July 31. (AP)
The $228 billion question. Iraqis take part in a demonstration in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, on July 31. (AP)

LONDON - Mass protests over unemployment and poor services in Iraq have redirected attention to corruption, which many say is the root of the country’s problems, prompting the government to step up its reform campaign.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi sacked five officials in the electoral commission over charges of corruption during the country’s parliamentary election last May.

“The decision to sack the officials was approved by the prime minister after they committed violations, manipulation and financial corruption,” said Judge Laith Jabr Hamza.

A day later, Abadi sacked his minister of electricity, Qasim al-Fahdawi, “because of the deterioration in the electricity sector,” said a statement from the prime minister’s office.

Solutions to power outages and water scarcity have been among the main demands in protests that began on July 8 and have claimed the lives of at least 14 people.

Hundreds of billions vanished since 2003

Protesters point to the country’s oil wealth and wonder why its benefits are not reaching them. Iraq’s central bank said the country raised more than $700 billion from oil sales from 2005-17 but 99.5% of the amount has been spent.

A parliamentary report stated that some $228 billion has vanished since 2003 because of corruption using shell companies.

An estimate by Rahim al-Daraji, a member of the Commission of Integrity, a body that looks into corruption allegations in Iraq, was even higher.

“Our financial experts estimate from 2003 until now more than $320 billion went missing and is untraceable. Most of this money went through corrupt contracts,” Daraji told Al Jazeera in May.

“One example is the Czech war planes deal. The price tag for each jet is $975,000 but the Iraqi government purchased each one for $13 million,” he said. “There are no institutions that hold those who are corrupt into account.”

New anti-corruption measures 

Abadi vowed to punish government officials who are proved to be incompetent or corrupt.

“We formed committees to assess the work of officials and if there is any shortcoming or corruption by an official, then we will be taking measures in that regard,” said Abadi in a televised weekly address.

“We toughened measures against corruption so that those who are corrupt don’t feel safe [as] we could still chase them after 10 or 15 years,” he warned.

Abadi is reportedly transferring the files of some 50 senior officials, including ministers and secretaries of ministries, to the Commission of Integrity.

The measure, however, “may take a long time because of the nature of the files that require thorough checks and inspections,” Ihsan al-Shamri, an adviser to Abadi, told Asharq Al-Awsat.

Not enough power 

The prime minister argued that the executive branch on its own does not have enough power to root out corruption. He called for help from the country’s judiciary and next parliament, whose members can only assume their seats after a partial vote recount is completed following election fraud allegations.

“Separation of powers is an essential part of the Iraqi constitution; as a prime minister, I cannot interfere in the work of the judiciary… [sometimes] I am convinced that a person is corrupt but I cannot provide irrefutable evidence to the courts. I am not a judge,” Abadi said in his weekly address.

Iraq ranked 169th out of 180 countries in the 2017 Transparency International’s “Corruption Perceptions Index.”

Last year, some 2,000 arrest warrants were reportedly issued on corruption charges but few of them led to convictions.

Those who are close to the prime minister are not hiding their despair.

“Unless the political system is changed it is impossible to fight corruption,” Mudher Salih, a financial adviser to Abadi, told the Independent.

Protesters critical of Sistani and Sadr 

Abadi’s renewed reform measures came after Iraq’s top Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, said via his representative in a sermon that the country’s new prime minister “must launch a relentless war against the corrupted and those who protect them.”

Observers understood the comment to mean that current prime minister has not waged a “relentless war” against corruption and therefore he may not be worthy of the second term that he seeks.

Sistani himself did not escape criticism when some protesters criticised him for not speaking out in favour of the demonstrations earlier.

Influential Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who led anti-corruption demonstrations, found himself shunned by protesters after his bloc secured the highest number of parliamentary seats and is in the process of forming a coalition government.

“The protesters believe we have become powerful in the country’s politics before the government has even been formed, or the parliament chosen,” a lawmaker from al-Sadr’s alliance told the website on condition of anonymity.

“We do support the demonstrators and if we were asked to choose between taking power or supporting their demands, we would choose protests rather than becoming part of a government that is unable to provide the necessary services,” he added.