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Iraq’s Prime Minister Is Trying to Fight Corruption by Rebooting the Government

With a sweeping political reform package, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidr al-Abadi is aiming to dismantle the government put in place following the US invasion in 2003.
August 11, 2015, 5:48pm
Photo by Etienne Laurent/EPA

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi laid out a plan to fight corruption throughout his war-weary country on Sunday, announcing one of the most sweeping political reform packages since he took office last year.

According to a statement released by the prime minister's office, the proposal will include the immediate termination of Iraq's three vice presidential positions, along with the offices of three deputy prime ministers. Although these positions are largely symbolic and were used to fill a sectarian quota, they remain occupied by politicians who still wield considerable authority to make and influence policy — including former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, who still retains a vice presidential position despite being blamed for much of Iraq's corruption and political sectarianism.


Related: The Only Thing Iraq's Sunnis and Shias Hate More Than Each Other Is the Islamic State

These wide-ranging reforms come on the heels of protests across several Iraqi provinces, including in key Shia cities in the south that support Abadi.

While the protests originally focused on chronic power shortages (exacerbated by soaring summer temperatures that have topped 120 degrees Fahrenheit), activists soon seized on the opportunity to focus on government corruption. These protests gained momentum when the Shia religious establishment, known as the Marja'iya, joined the debate and issued a statement from Iraq's most senior cleric — Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani — calling on Abadi to pursue meaningful reforms to fight corruption.

"There is obviously deep popular frustration and anger at this continued lack of services for yet another summer," Raad Alkadiri, a managing director at IHS, a research and analytics company, told VICE News. "The tone and mood of the demonstrations this year have been more politically challenging, plus they have taken place across the Shia heartland, which is a problem for Abadi."

In response to these protests, the prime minister's proposal will seek to reduce the number of personnel in government, cut salaries, and reform the hiring process to make positions merit based rather than sectarian. Surplus savings will then be diverted to the ministries organizing the war effort against the so-called Islamic State (IS).


This plan has already been endorsed by the prime minister's cabinet, known as the Council of Ministers, but still has to be ratified by the Iraqi Parliament, which, according to some sources, will approve the proposal today. If passed, the reforms will be the most significant policy overhaul in 12 years, and will effectively eliminate some major features of the system of government put in place following the US invasion in 2003.

Watch the VICE News documentary, The Battle for Iraq: Shia Militias vs. The Islamic State:

Asked about US support for Abadi's proposal, US State Department spokesman Michael Lavallee told VICE News, "Prime Minister Abadi has presented a proposal to streamline the Iraqi government and address corruption. This is an internal Iraqi matter, but we commend Prime Minister Abadi's initiative to promote improved government services and transparency."

It's potentially a landmark step for the Iraqi government, which is ranked by Transparency International as one of the five most corrupt countries in the world.

Passing reforms is not the same as implementing them, however, and significant challenges remain due to the political culture in Iraq. Political institutions still lack effective governance mechanisms, and are cobbled together by a hodgepodge of sectarian and factional alliances that are not easily broken. In addition, the Iraqi government operates as a patronage system that has always been used for short-term personal and party advancement — even at the expense of long-term national interests.


Iraq's economy is also sustained by oil revenues, and the drop in oil prices and the continued cost of fighting IS has pushed the country closer to financial crisis — making these reforms timely and bold, but ultimately limiting the kinds of tools that Abadi might have handy to initiate deeper reform.

Related: Massive Oil Fields Are Iraq's Biggest Asset — And a Huge Liability — in the Fight Against the Islamic State

"As with anything in Iraq, the question is follow through," Alkadiri said. "Iraq's institutions are incredibly shallow and dysfunctional. What Abadi is trying to do is enhance the administrative effectiveness of the government, but it has no real depth or foundation to it."

Thus far, it seems most leading political coalitions support Abadi's efforts out of political necessity. The nationwide protests, along with support from the Shia religious establishment have limited the options of most politicians who might naturally oppose these kinds of reforms.

Emboldened, the prime minister has launched corruption investigations against several prominent members of the political establishment. One of the three deputy prime ministers was targeted, and has already resigned as a result.

Some politicians will ultimately see the move as a play to consolidate power and remove political enemies. But as a financial crisis looms over Iraq and the war against IS grinds on, these drastic steps are likely needed to target the most fundamental problems facing the government, including systemic corruption.

Abadi might pass his reforms, but he will face continued opposition, including an entire roster of powerful enemies who might soon be out of lucrative political jobs. "If he [Abadi] is successful, this would amount to a revolution from within," Alkadiri said.

Follow Landon Shroder on Twitter: @LandonShroder