Iraq: face of corruption, mask of politics

Zaid Al-Ali
2 July 2009

The United States's military evacuation of Iraq‘s cities on 30 June 2009, the beginning of its overall withdrawal from the country, also offers an opportunity to heal the many wounds that have been inflicted on Iraq's people. But even for those of us who have argued that a failure to withdraw would be tantamount to continuing on the road to hell, a number of fundamental issues weigh heavily on our minds now that the occupation may be ending.Zaid Al-Ali is an attorney at the New York Bar and specialises in international commercial arbitration. He has graduated from King's College London, the Sorbonne University in Paris and Harvard Law School. He is currently writing a book on the Iraqi constitution with Jõrg Fedtke, to be published in 2009

Among Zaid Al-Ali's articles in openDemocracy:

"Iraq: the lost generation" (7 November 2004)

"Iraq's dangerous elections" (23 December 2004)

"The end of secularism in Iraq" (18 May 2005)

"Lebanon's pre-election hangover" (27 May 2005)

"Iraq: a constitution or an epitaph?" (16 August 2005)

"Iraq: a constitution to nowhere" (14 October 2005)

"Iraq's war of elimination" (21 August 2006)

"Saving Iraq: a critique of Peter W Galbraith" (26 October 2006)

"Lebanon on the brink - but of what?" (18 December 2006)

"The United States in Iraq: the case for withdrawal" (19 January 2007)

"Iraqis in freefall" (21 March 2007)

"Iraq: a wall to conquer us" (7 May 2007)

"Lebanon's Palestinian shame" (19 June 2007)

"What Obama means for Iraq" (13 November 2008)

"The Cairo speech: Arab Muslim voices" (8 June 2009) - with Karim Kasim 

No one can be certain whether sectarian tensions will re-emerge, and whether a semblance of law and order will be maintained. One thing is certain, however: the political class that is currently in control of Iraq, perhaps the most corrupt and incompetent that the country has ever seen, will have to be purged in some way if we are ever to reduce the massive levels of poverty and the awful state of public services. This may take care of itself: some of the most risk-averse amongst these corrupt officials have already begun packing their bags in anticipation of the pullout.

Everyone understands that corruption must be brought under control - even senior Iraqi officials, who in fact care little for the welfare of their people but would like to maintain the appearance that they do; hence the publicity that has been given to the window-dressing efforts made by some institutions in the first half of 2009. The most transparent of these is the initiative launched by the Iraqi parliament to exercise oversight over ministries that are suspected of financial and administrative oversight. At a distance, a victory for transparent government was achieved: the minister of trade - popularly believed to be amongst the most corrupt of Iraq's ministers - was forced to resign and is now being prosecuted for massive fraud (see Patrick Cockburn, "Iraq faces the mother of all corruption scandals", Independent, 29 May 2009).

Upon closer inspection however, there is no escaping the conclusion that very little if anything will change, and that individual ministers and political parties will continue making use of the institutions that they control as private bank-accounts.

A corrupt reconstruction

The breach through which Iraq's public funds are flooding wasn't opened in 2003. Corruption was already a problem prior to the invasion, but it took on a new dimension under the American occupation. At least three separate factors contributed to this phenomenon. The first was the failure to establish any type of financial or quality control on "reconstruction" work in the post-war period. Foreign contractors could not help but to notice what was happening and quickly sought to take advantage. There are documented accounts of the massive amounts that were spent on bribery, no-bid contracts, construction projects that led absolutely nowhere, of American officials who would force Iraqis to overbid for contracts and then pocket much of the profit for themselves. All this took place in plain view of the Iraqi population, who were encouraged to take part, and who quickly understood that money and not ideology was the prize of the post-war period.

The second step came as the United States and its allies sought to remake the Iraqi state immediately after the invasion. Ideally, the construction or reconstruction of a state should either be the fruit of a long evolution of ideas and practices over time, or should be the result of a deliberate effort to build a cohesive and efficient governmental structure in which each institution plays a specific role (whether in terms of implementation, planning or oversight) and no gaps are left open, while at the same time ensuring that whatever practices and traditions that exist in the country in question are taken into account.

The destruction and reconstruction of the Iraqi state proceeded along completely different lines: a reactionary approach began by encouraging the dismantling of any institution or body that was under the control of the Ba'ath party, regardless of what role that institution actually played and whether it functioned efficiently or not, and went on to establish a constitutional framework that was designed merely to be the opposite of the previous set-up, in the hope that this would prevent a recurrence of the mistakes of the past. Little thought was given to whether what resulted actually amounted to a coherent state structure, and whether it was in keeping with Iraqi working methods and traditions.

As it turns out, the structure was neither cohesive nor coherent, and many Iraqi public servants resisted the changes that were brought about, causing a breakdown in the cycle of planning, implementation and oversight. This opening was deliberately exploited and maintained for years by the state's new guardians.

Thus, the occupation authorities either completely abolished (as was the case for the Revolutionary Command Council) or dissolved a number of institutions and replaced them by completely new structures (mostly famously, the Iraqi army, but also a number of political institutions, including the ministry of interior and the parliament). These institutions were considered to have been so tainted by the Ba'ath party that nothing could or should be salvaged from them, including individual staff members that had been responsible for administration matters only; as a result,  whatever procedures, know-how or expertise that had been developed drained away.

Inevitably, it was the replacement institutions that have had the most trouble in standing on their own two feet - given their staff's lack of training and experience, and the failure to retain any of the working methods that had been established under the previous regime, and the corresponding and desperate attempts to reinvent the wheel. This was the case for the parliament, which was dissolved and replaced by an entirely new structure. Not one staff member was retained and the institution has been trying to pick up the pieces since.

On the other hand, most non-political, professional state agencies and institutions were maintained, with either slight or significant modifications to their legal regime. This applies to the Board of Supreme Audit (BSA, Iraq's top audit institution), which was established by law in 1927, and which is responsible for auditing the government's implementation of the annual state budget. The BSA is a generally respected body which had previously contributed to efforts to keep inefficiency and corruption under control. The BSA was allowed to continue functioning after 2003 first by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and then by the new Iraqi state by virtue of the new constitution, which for the first time actually elevated its state to a constitutionally recognised institution.

Its staff (some of which have been auditing government accounts for decades) was retained and was even trained in the application of international best practice. The reform that the CPA enacted was to take away from the BSA the possibility of referring matters of corruption directly to the courts. Referrals had to go to the Commission on Integrity, an American creation, which has so far been among the most toothless of all of Iraq's agencies.

Among openDemocracy's many articles on Iraq's politics and conflicts:

Sami Zubaida, "The rise and fall of civil society in Iraq" (5 February 2003)

Peter Sluglett, "Iraq's short century: old problems, new perspectives" (3 June 2003)

Fred Halliday, "Looking back on Saddam Hussein" (7 January 2004)

Zaid Al-Ali, "The end of secularism in Iraq" (18 May 2005)

Zaid Al-Ali, "Iraq: a constitution or an epitaph?" (16 August 2005)

Sami Zubaida, "Democracy, Iraq and the middle east" (18 November 2005)

Zaid Al-Ali, "Iraq's war of elimination" (21 August 2006)

Sami Ramadani, "Iraq: not civil war, occupation" (7 December 2006)

Tareq Y Ismael, "The ghost of Saddam Hussein" (30 January 2007)

Zaid Al-Ali, "Iraqis in freefall" (21 March 2007)

Volker Perthes, "Iraq in 2012: four scenarios" (11 September 2007)

Charles Tripp, "Iraq: the politics of the local" (25 January 2008)

Safa A Hussein, "Iraq's political space" (18 February 2008)

Robert Springborg, "Uncle Sam in Iraq: the war of narratives" (20 March 2008)

Reidar Visser, "Basra's second battle decoded" (31 March 2008)

Reidar Visser, "The United States and Iraq: still getting it wrong" (3 October 2008)

Fred Halliday, "The futures of Iraq" (4 December 2008)

Joost R Hiltermann, "Iraq's elections: winners, losers, and what's next" (10 February 2009) The second volley came when efforts began to draft Iraq's interim constitution in 2004 and then its permanent constitution in 2005. Many of the parties that took part in the process were motivated partly by a desire to prevent the recurrence of the previous regime's disastrously poor performance and its endless crimes. The result was a text that was often reactionary in nature, and that made no attempt to reconcile the generally (albeit not universally) accepted image amongst Iraqis of what their state should look like with the justifiable need for constitutional safeguards.

Thus, where the state had previously been highly centralised, a very loose federal regime was provided for. Also, in order to prevent the tyranny of a powerful prime minister or president, both were placed under the authority of what is probably one of the Arab region's strongest parliamentary systems. Little thought was given as to whether these arrangements would be acceptable to the Iraqi people (we have now learned that they are not) and to those institutions and officials that survived the state's restructuring.

A breach that can't be closed

Despite these new arrangements, traditions die hard in Iraq and there has been much resistance to the new constitution from a number of institutions, including the government, and even from within the parliament itself. Iraq had long been a command economy with little consideration given to counterbalancing the planning and expenditure of the state budget with local political concerns. The ministry of finance's bureaucrats would prepare the annual state budget, which would be approved by the state's various structures without much debate. According to the 2006 constitution, the Iraqi parliament now has an important role to play in that process, but the ministry of finance considers the parliament to be little more than an annoying distraction that is populated by unskilled and self-serving politicians, and treats it with a corresponding amount of contempt.

Other institutions that predate 2003 have also resisted change, including the BSA itself. The BSA has traditionally been answerable and has reported to the executive branch of government, but article 103(2) of the 2006 constitution shifted reporting lines in favour of the parliament. In turn, under the new system, the parliament is supposed to act upon any information provided to it by the BSA and hold the government accountable if any irregularities are noted. However, BSA officials view the parliament as an upstart institution with no sense or understanding of what oversight means, and therefore have underplayed their relationship with both individual MPs, legislative and oversight committees and with the institution as a whole.

With both the government and oversight institutions refusing to cooperate with the legislature under the terms of the new constitutional arrangement, and with a culture of corruption that was quickly spiralling out of control, many saw the breach that had opened up as an opportunity that could not be missed: the chance to run a government with no oversight whatsoever. In order to ensure that this breach would not be closed, several of the state's vital institutions were commandeered right from the start, specifically in order to prevent them from developing their capabilities and from carrying out their functions.

When the current government was formed in 2006, it was the result of a coalition of a majority of the parties that are represented in parliament. Several of this coalition's key partners occupied key posts within the state structure (including the speaker's post in parliament) and worked together to prevent any interference in whatever it was that the government was doing. Since then, several of the coalition's key partners have broken away (including the followers of Muqtada al-Sadr (Sadrists) and the Islamic Party), as a result of which the government now represents only a minority of parliament. In one way or another however, it has until recently continued to dominate the state's key positions.

The result is that when parliamentarians insisted that the ministry of finance should address their comments to the draft annual budget law, the parliamentary speaker would take the ministry's side and force a resolution in favour of the latter. Also, whenever members of the parliamentary majority requested that a government official provide evidence in relation to specific policies, the speaker would also intervene to prevent any questioning from taking place. This institutional breakdown led to a complete absence of oversight on government for more than three years. From 2006-2009, not a single government official was called to be questioned before parliament.

A number of key factors meant that the parliament also failed to legislate and regulate. Most importantly, there is still no legal framework for the functioning and financing of political parties in Iraq. The Independent High Electoral Commission is the only institution to have established a set of rules in relation to how political parties should raise, invest and handle money, and whether political parties can be associated to foreign nations or militias, but the enforceability of these rules is questionable at best. The parliament has not filled the vacuum, as a result of which no one knows where Iraq's many political parties raise their money from. Virtually none maintain accounts that are worthy of the name, and there is no question that public funds illicitly find their way into parties' coffers, and into private bank-accounts in neighbouring countries or even further afield.

Another failure was to clarify the mandate of key anti-corruption bodies, including the BSA, the Commission on Integrity and the inspectors-general. Some of these institutions stand on such fragile ground that their effectiveness has been seriously compromised. By way of example, each ministry has an inspector-general that acts as an internal auditor and through which the BSA must pass if it is to refer an act of corruption to the applicable authorities. However, there is as of yet no overseeing institution which regulates their work, no requirement for the inspector-generals to communicate with each other or share lessons learned, no set of standards that they are forced to apply, nor is their independence from the relevant minister particularly clear either. Just as pathetic is the BSA, which produces detailed audit reports in relation to each of the government's various bodies, all of which fall onto deaf ears: the parliament is responsible for acting upon the reports but has probably never reviewed a single one.

In that context, it was an open secret that the ministry of trade, which is responsible for procuring basic foodstuffs that form the backbone of the country's rationing system, was either wasting or haemorrhaging around 70% of its budget. The ministry's inspector-general had raised some questions with the minister and was reassigned to a post in China shortly thereafter. When law-enforcement officials presented themselves at the ministry to make nine arrests in relation to accusations of corruption, a gunfight erupted and they only made off with one of the suspects. Other ministries were not much better but their exploits were not as visible. In any event, the theft and waste of billions of dollars of public money was allowed to continue unfettered.

A play on corruption

For the past few years, there has been a tacit agreement amongst all of Iraq's ruling parties that the state's assets are to be shared jointly between them and that whatever remains will go to the public. This is to the extent that any talk of a minister being prosecuted was never evidence of a crackdown on graft, but of an agreement (tacit or otherwise) amongst all other senior politicians that the target of the investigation should be shut out of the collective for whatever reason. Those anti-corruption officials that insisted that the rule of law should be upheld regardless have invariably been killed or forced into exile.

The ground started shifting around January 2009, when the authority of prime minister Nouri al-Maliki over various state institutions became more assertive, and as a number of political groups outside government began fearing for their survival. Their fears were underlined by the results of the local elections in February 2009 in which Maliki's Dawa party made great strides, often to the detriment of what had previously been powerful rival parties. The losers included the Fadhila (Virtue) Party (which had previously controlled local government in Basra but which was practically wiped out in the local elections), and the Iraqi Islamic Party (which also lost a large amount of ground in all the provinces that it was contesting). These same parties, fearing that the local results would be reflected at the national level in the parliamentary elections that are due to take place in January 2010 opted for a new strategy, which involved using the constitution and the political process to punish their opponents.

The first step involved asserting their authority over the parliament, which wasn't difficult as they still controlled a majority of seats. The previous speaker, who was one of the government's allies in parliament and who had prevented the legislature from exercising any oversight over government for almost three years, was ousted in December 2008 to the delight of most MPs who had grown exasperated of his incompetent administration. Ayad al-Samarrai, of the Iraqi Islamic Party, was the main candidate to replace him, because of his reputation for professionalism and efficiency, but also because of the fact that he was a leading member of the parliamentary majority and therefore of the opposition to the government. Al-Maliki saw in him a potentially dangerous opponent, and did what he could to oppose his appointment but only managed to delay it by a few months. Al-Samarrai was elected in April  2009 and the floodgates were opened for the parliament to be used as a political weapon by the losers of the local elections against the winners.

Soon after, the parliament called a senior government official, Faleh al-Sudani, the minister of trade and a member of the Dawa party, for the first time before a plenary session to answer a series of questions relating to allegations of corruption. The minister arrogantly refused to answer certain questions and appeared not to be taking the entire process seriously. He had clearly misread the signs: his assumption was that the arrangement that had been in place for the past three years remained in place, and that the government would come to his defence. It had not dawned upon him that the parliamentary majority was fighting for its political survival and that they were using their institution to eliminate their rivals. Al-Sudani soon came to understand however: he resigned on 25 May 2009, was arrested five days later while attempting to flee the country and is currently awaiting trial for financial and administrative corruption. It was the first time in years that a minister had been charged with corruption.

The parliament has since indicated that it will call the ministers of foreign affairs, natural resources, finance, transport, and interior, amongst others to answer charges of mismanagement of public funds and/or sub-standard performance. The government baulked at what it says will amount to an insurmountable interference in its work and of what it sees as a politicisation of the oversight process. Counter-accusations that the government was seeking to avoid any further accounting were offered. Khaled al-Attiyah, the government's most senior ally in parliament, bluntly accused3 the "losers" of the local elections of seeking to punish the "winners".

He was right, and that is precisely what is wrong with the parliament's sudden reinvigoration. The new Iraqi system of oversight is vaguely based on the Westminster model, but in the latter ministers are never called to provide evidence before any of the House of Commons's committees (including the powerful public-accounts committee) precisely in order to avoid a politicisation (or even an appearance of politicisation) of the process. It is taken for granted that the government would come to the defence of any one of its members, which would cause the entire system to collapse. Instead, public servants, who remain in their posts regardless of who is in power, are called to provide evidence mostly in order to discuss the efficiency of their ministry's work and whether the taxpayer has obtained value for money.

In Iraq, oversight has taken on a completely different dimension. The key facts that corruption is the result of both an institutional and legislative breach, that that breach is deliberately being kept open by the powers that be, and that those same powers are willing to defend their prize with violence, made it pointless for the parliamentary majority to deal with corruption's outward manifestation without first dealing with the underlying cause. It should have been obvious that the breach would merely be filled by someone else. A more effective approach, which would also have helped it avoid accusations of electoral posturing, would have been to reduce opportunities for corruption by requiring all political parties, politicians and officials to declare their financial interests, by setting out the procedures that are to be followed by anti-corruption bodies, while at the same time defending their independence from the bodies that they are overseeing.

Instead, the parliamentary majority sought to force its main opponents out of office and into prison without making significant progress on any of these issues. Therefore what many saw as a victory for parliamentary oversight and for governmental accountability was actually nothing more than a political vendetta, which will have no impact on the public wellbeing

It was a declaration of war, and an answer came on 12 June 2009, when Harith al-Ubaidi, one of Samarai's closest associates, became the first Iraqi MP in years to be assassinated. He was killed just after Friday prayers by a lone gunman, who later blew himself up as he was being apprehended by al-Ubaidi's bodyguards. Whoever the killers were, there is no question that they were at least partly motivated by a desire to convince politicians and observers that the murder was retribution for Faleh al-Sudani's arrest. Since then, the parliament's enthusiasm to question ministers has been curbed.

Just as stability and democracy in Iraq could never be the by-product of a self-interested and twisted occupation, no one should expect corruption to be reduced in Iraq through the efforts of a group of political parties to remain relevant by imprisoning their rivals. The only solution is to rebuild institutions from the bottom up, and to fill the legal and regulatory breach that has been opened. All the better that the occupation will be coming to an end, so that progress can be made in the absence of its external interference and imposed incompetence.


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