Iraqis Seek End to Government Corruption though Analysts Remain Pessimistic

Photo Credit: Haider Mohammed Ali/AFP/Getty Images

Protesters rallied by cleric Muqtada al-Sadr charged Iraq’s heavily fortified Green Zone, an area in Baghdad that houses government headquarters and foreign embassies, and briefly occupied the Iraqi parliament building. After months of protesting Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s stalled reforms, demonstrators broke into the parliament building, “tore down walls, called government leaders corrupt and cowardly, and demanded their immediate resignation,” reported Al Jazeera. Iraqis have been protesting the delayed reforms since August 2015, when Abadi initially announced a plan to rid the government of its sectarian-based quota system and bring forth a technocratic cabinet. But heavy opposition from current parliament members who have “long depended on Iraq’s system of patronage” have impeded a new cabinet from forming.

According to Emma Sky, a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute, the Green Zone symbolizes “all that is wrong with the legitimacy and capability of Iraq’s government” and was a natural place for the protests to culminate.  “Iraq’s political elites live in splendid isolation, totally unaccountable to the Iraqi people and using the country’s oil wealth to fund their own luxurious lifestyles,” Sky wrote in Politico. Zack Beauchamp argues in Vox that the protests are not simply about a cabinet reshuffle, but rather something “much deeper …[including] discontent over the failure of Iraq’s governing institutions, which are some of the most corrupt and mismanaged in the world, to provide even the most basic services – like electricity to power air conditioning.” As Beauchamp wrote, evidence emerged in 2015 exposing that 29 companies stole over $4 billion from Iraq’s government using fake contracts, and Iraq ranks 161 out of 168 on Transparency International’s “corruption perceptions index.”

The Washington Post editorial board criticized the Obama administration’s “Iraq delusion,” saying its strong reliance on singular leaders (e.g. Abadi and Nouri al-Maliki before him) in conjunction with “a reluctance to accept that an established status quo can’t hold,” have rendered U.S. policy toward Iraq impotent.

Some analysts are now questioning whether the establishment of a new cabinet will actually help alleviate Iraq’s political problems. As head of the Iraqi National Initiative Ghassan al-Atiyyah told one outlet, the depth of corruption and resulting “dysfunctional nature” within the government will make real change difficult. As Kyle McEneaney wrote in Foreign Affairs, reform must be treated as a “bitter pill that the country must swallow in order to treat its endemic corruption.”