What it takes for Iraq to overcome impasse

There must be a complete change in the political culture and a shift from sectarianism and ethnic categorisation that run counter to the constitution and the spirit of the times as well as to the principle of citizenship.
Sunday 10/11/2019
An Iraqi protester waves the natioanl flag in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square amid anti-government demonstrations, November 5. (AFP)
Patience running thin. An Iraqi protester waves the natioanl flag in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square amid anti-government demonstrations, November 5. (AFP)

The ills of Iraq are well known and clearly visible: financial and administrative corruption; sectarian and ethnic quotas; an overstaffed and inefficient public sector; the deterioration of all public services, including water and electricity shortages, poor health, education and transport services; a faltering economic output, especially in agriculture and industry; unemployment; environmental deterioration; the politicisation of the judiciary and the media; widespread drug abuse among the population; brain drain. The list goes on.

Whoever believes that it is possible to focus on any of these phenomena and fix it in isolation of all the others is deluding himself because they are interconnected and have one source: the country’s political system.

Without its reform we can’t begin to speak of fixing any of the other problems. Any solution would be a minor, superficial patchwork procedure compared with the scale of the problem.

The system wasn’t designed to fix the problems suffered by the country. This is despite that everyone in the political leadership is calling for reform and claiming to want it and seek it on the condition that their own interests are not compromised.

Sectarian and ethnic quotas are the tools the designers of the Iraqi political system have used to divide the spoils, lay their hands on the rentier state of Iraq and loot its resources in a systematic and legitimate manner.

Iraq is an exhausted and crumbling state that has been weakened from the inside after decades of dictatorship, wars and siege. A comparison of the economic, social and cultural indicators published by the United Nations for Iraq in 1978 with those of 2003 shows a horrific drop at all levels.

If we factor in the remarkable progress that has taken place in most parts of the world in the same period, the deterioration in Iraq takes even greater dimensions. This explains why no Iraqi went to the rescue of the Saddam regime when the US military machine arrived to remove it.

The political leadership that surfaced after the regime change was diverse. The Kurds had a fairly organised and stable leadership and they had resources and experience in self-rule and autonomy in Kurdistan since 1991. Political Islam parties, particularly the Shia ones, had qualified people and were organised and supported politically and financially. None of the other political currents and tendencies were organised or supported but they enjoyed a broad support base among the country’s intellectuals and administrators.

Then the Kurdish leadership forged a “strategic alliance” with Shia Islamist parties that gave the Kurds immediate gains and opened the way for Shia Islamist parties to pounce on power in Baghdad, grab the state’s resources and use them, not to build the country, but to consolidate their hegemony.

Those resources were used to strengthen the parties and put in place a vile system of patronage. To sustain this system, they had, of course, to involve leaders representing the Sunnis of Iraq led by the Islamic Party, which turned out to be no less thirsty for the power and the benefits it produces than their generous partners.

Thus was born a system of quotas that became the solid foundation of the political system in Iraq and flung the gates wide open to such a blatant, comprehensive, ferocious, and callous system of corruption unsurpassed by any other model known in the modern world.

Sectarianism and ethnic politics led to a system of quotas and quotas led to corruption. There is no way one can separate both parts of the equation. The inevitable and logical consequence of quotas and corruption is the overinflated state apparatus because employment in government departments, whether security or civil, has become a political tool for buying loyalties.

When hiring to staff a department or agency, what’s important is not the objective need of that institution in qualified human resources but to continue to appoint cronies. Over time, the growing number of unemployed university graduates swelled and pressure from public discontent forced the government to create unjustified public-service positions and job grades to absorb this discontent, making matters worse.

In addition to a huge burden on the state budget, inflation in state institutions and agencies deprives the general population of Iraq’s resources and impedes the performance of the government.

When you hire people on the basis of their loyalty and willingness to sustain the corrupt system, you’re not looking for qualified people capable of fixing problems. This is true in all sectors and levels of appointments, starting with ministers down to “ghost” employees.

The best illustration of the colossal failure of this system is the ease with which the Islamic State took control of large areas of the country.

Therefore, we reiterate that Iraq’s problems are interdependent and can only be addressed by reforming the political system first.

The constitution forbids discrimination on religious, sectarian or ethnic grounds but the prevailing political culture and practice say that the prime minister must be a Shia and the two presidents are Sunni and Kurdish. This is an arrangement that was introduced in 2004 as a temporary measure to reassure the “components” of Iraqi society but was soon transformed into a fixed custom that is taken for granted. Thus Iraq was “Lebanonised,” despite and against its written constitution.

For Iraq to emerge from its predicament, all of this must change. Citizens are equal in rights and every citizen has the full right to any position in the state if he or she is eligible, regardless of his or her social, ethnic or religious category. This is a necessary condition to break the impasse.

There must be a complete change in the political culture and a shift from sectarianism and ethnic categorisation that run counter to the constitution and the spirit of the times as well as to the principle of citizenship.

When we say “Religion is for God and the homeland for all” it means there must be a coherent state in which everyone is equally governed by the rule of law. The state’s function is to protect and serve citizens without discrimination. Religious, sectarian and ethnic affiliations are all respected and it is a personal affair of the citizen outside the prerogatives of the state.

What is sacred to one citizen may not be so to another but the right of belief is guaranteed and upheld by the law. Only the state has the right to use violence, within the framework of the law, of course, and no individual or authority is above the law. A citizen must be able to enjoy his or her full freedom to choose his or her beliefs and ideologies without imposing them on others.

This is the principle of citizenship on which a modern state must be built so it can catch up with the heightened pace of civilised countries. Without it, we’re going to be forever stuck in the same vicious circle of the devastating trio of sectarianism, quotas and corruption — and we will only regress. None of the calls for and attempts at reform will lead anywhere if we do not deal with this simple truth and there is no other way to control the despicable corruption in Iraq.