Reconstruction is hostage to corruption in Iraq
Baghdad - Billions of dollars in Iraqi state funds are being squandered. Ambitious infrastructure projects do not advance beyond the drawing board. Angry Iraqis who took to the streets demanding improved services received only empty promises. State corruption is blamed as the major obstacle facing Iraq’s multibillion-dollar reconstruction drive but still thrives.
Iraqi analysts said the scene is unlikely to change. They said Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is preoccupied with political problems to ensure that he is seen as a politician loyal to his country and that his party, many leaders of which are accused of corruption, remains at the head of the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad.
Iraqi cabinet officials acknowledge that the war against terrorism, a term Iraqis use to point to their military campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS), is eating up almost half of Iraq’s budget — perhaps even more if expenditures are carefully calculated to consider dwindling revenues due to falling oil prices.
“The prime minister is too weak, lawmakers, political and religious parties don’t want to rock the boat so that they won’t lose their sway and perks, while corruption will remain entrenched,” said Baghdad analyst Jawad al-Tae.
“Without organised help from political parties, people are too weak to force a change to this sour reality.”
Abdul-Karim Abtan, a member of the parliamentary Integrity Committee, said about $450 billion was wasted because of widespread corruption by governments that have ruled Iraq since Saddam Hussein’s regime was toppled in the US-led invasion in 2003.
“It is important that Iraq keeps trying to retrieve the stolen funds and to identify corrupt people and bring them to justice,” he said.
It is widely believed in Iraq that senior government officials started taking commissions to help foreign firms, mostly American at the time, win contracts from Iraqi ministries and other government offices. In return, the officials provided legal protection for contractors who eventually failed to complete the projects assigned to them, leaving the country with a huge shortage of electricity, water, schools and hospitals, while existing facilities and infrastructure were neglected and maintenance almost non-existent.
Iraq ranked 161st out of 168 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Hundreds of schools, hospitals and infrastructure projects have not been completed despite huge amounts of money spent, according to government statistics.
The Iraqi government and the United Nations have signed an agreement to boost the capabilities of Baghdad to detect, investigate and prosecute high-profile and complex corruption cases.
Under the agreement, international investigators will be assigned to help Iraqi government auditors tasked with investigating corruption.
“This agreement will help identify corrupt officials and those investigators will be working away from the pressure of powerful parties,” said Abtan.
The effects of corruption on Iraqis have worsened with the sharp decline in oil revenues caused by receding crude prices and the costs of the war against ISIS, Tae said.
Enraged by daily hardships, Iraqis have staged anti-corruption protests to demand that corrupt officials be brought to trial. Abadi gave a weak response to the demands with a partial cabinet reshuffle that was supposed to replace party-affiliated ministers accused of embezzlement with independent technocrats.
Even this small step faced obstruction by Iraq’s parliament, which is controlled by powerful parties keen to maintain their privileges. Abadi eventually bowed to the pressure and agreed on technocrats brought on by the parties.
“The changing of faces is not the solution because any minister who would refuse to take care of the interests of powerful parties will be dragged to parliament and voted out,” said Baghdad resident Mehdi Abdul-Sahib.
Earlier in August, Iraqis were jubilant to see Defence Minister Khaled al-Obeidi publicly accuse parliament Speaker Salim al-Jabouri and other lawmakers of extortion by asking for bribes and shares in lucrative military contracts in return for sparing him parliamentary questioning.
Obeidi’s revelations showed that politicians do not hesitate to make profit from the military in a critical period when Iraq is faced with sectarian strife and Iraqi soldiers are fighting Sunni militants who control significant parts of their country.
Yet, the shock came a few days later, when a judicial panel acquitted Jabouri of corruption charges for lack of evidence. Iraqis were angered by the acquittal in a country where a small robbery investigation and trial could take months. The Iraqi prime minister also voiced his surprise.
Meanwhile, about 60 lawmakers signed a petition to have a vote of no-confidence in Obeidi.
“The planned no-confidence vote is a clear message to all ministers that they will face Obeidi’s fate if they dare to speak out publicly against powerful corrupt politicians,” Iraqi lawmaker Ali al-Bedeiri said.
On August 25th Iraqi lawmakers voted to remove Obeidi, triggering public anger.
Iraqi politician Izzat al-Shahbandar said corrupt cabinet ministers and lawmakers formed a united front to “teach the Defence minister and anyone else a lesson on how to keep their mouths shut when they see corruption in their ministries”.
“What we’re witnessing now is an absurd drama of the victory of the corrupt and the demise of the honest,” he said.