Reconstruction is hostage to corruption in Iraq

Sunday 18/09/2016
Without organised help from political parties, people are too weak to force a change

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.