Endless battle: Fighting systemic corruption in Iraq

The recent protests against the government act as poignant rejoinders to Iraq’s systemic corruption and discrimination.

People shout slogans during a demonstration at Tahrir Square in central Baghdad
While Prime Minister Haider al-Abbadi felt pressure from these protests, they also served as a major embarrassment, writes Marashi [Reuters]

Over the last two weeks anti-government protests have erupted in several Iraqi cities, including the capital Baghdad, Basra in the south, and the predominantly Shia heartland towns of Najaf, Karbala, and Hilla – the constituencies of Iraq’s major political parties.

The protests are primarily aimed at corruption in the government, which resulted in electricity cuts and salty tap water.

While Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abbadi felt pressure from these protests, they also served as a major embarrassment.

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Iraq’s anti-state, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), boasts of delivering services like reliable electricity in the sprawling Iraqi city of Mosul.

The latest protests against the government’s failure to deliver services act as poignant rejoinders to the engrained notions of Iraq’s Shia Muslims, constituting a monolithic sectarian population.

The demonstrations have proven that a shared Shia adherence between political elites and the Shia population is only skin deep, especially when one’s skin is burning in Iraq’s 50 degree Celsius heat and there’s no electricity for air conditioning.

Establishing a High Commission

In response to the protests, Abbadi responded by calling for the establishment of a High Commission to combat corruption and a campaign to streamline the executive branch, eliminating several posts, including those of Iraq’s three vice presidents.

The politicians who held these vice presidencies include former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Iyad Allawi, the leader of the former Iraqiya List, and Osama al-Nujaifi from Mosul.

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The redundant number of vice presidencies, which are ceremonial roles, are a symptom of Iraq’s patronage politics, where government posts are handed out not to reward a leader’s acumen in governing Iraq, but as part of the bargain with the myriad of ethnosectarian parties that form Iraq’s post-2003 political landscape.

Posts like these are also rewarded to generate a sense of inclusiveness.

Maliki and Allawi are Shia, while Nujaifi is Sunni. Awarding Nujaifi this position in the past was an attempt to bridge differences with Iraq’s disenfranchised Sunnis.

Abbadi’s recent moves are attempts to reshuffle Iraq’s politicians, who have made a career of playing “musical chairs” in various political posts since 2003.

What remains to be seen is whether the prime minister can tackle the insurmountable structural challenge of reforming a political system that’s based on rewarding Iraqi politicians posts solely due to their ethnic and sectarian backgrounds.

Keeping the peace

For Abbadi to sustainably tackle corruption and ensure stable governance, he would have to overhaul an Iraqi state akin to the sectarian quota system in Lebanon, a recipe that maintained peace after its civil war, but has not translated into efficient governance.

ISIL not only took advantage of this Arab Sunni discontent, it then created a model of governance that repudiated those corrupt practises of the Iraqi state.


At this stage, Abbadi does not have the political clout to deal with both the ISIL military threat and overhauling the Iraqi state, even though dealing with the latter would be a necessary condition for combating ISIL.

Among Iraq’s Shia Muslims, he vies for power with the various militias and Iraq’s top Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Abbadi came to power in 2014 partly as a result of calls from Sistani for the prime minister’s predecessor, Maliki, to step down. 

Abbadi had gotten the recent political cover to deal with “corruption” in the state as a result of Sistani’s sermon, calling upon Iraq’s leadership to tackle the corruption at the top, which has led to Iraq’s failure to deliver services.

Abbadi’s announcement streamlined executive decision-making and relieved the state of the burden of providing security details for three vice presidents.

Ageing infrastructure and crippled grids

He still has the challenge of dealing with the physical problem of an ageing infrastructure and crippled electricity grid that has yet to be rebuilt from the chaos of the 2003 post-war looting, partly as a result of corruption in the various ministries and municipal governments.

Furthermore, Abbadi’s vision for a High Commission to deal with corruption will face challenges, most likely from corrupt politicians who would most likely seek to join said commission.

The issue he is attempting to tackle is one that is pervasive within all levels of state.

Public discontent soars along with the heat in Iraq

Forms of corruption, not just in Iraq, but in a fair number of Middle Eastern states, includes the lucrative practice of informal, predatory extractive policies from society.

When a politician in Iraq is awarded a ministerial post, that ministry is filled with political loyalists rather than talented technocrats.

Those loyalists down the hierarchy then can reward themselves by accepting bribes, or creating their own niches of patronage within the ministry.

There are civil servants who demand bribes from citizens for completing the simplest administrative task, or members of the armed forces or paramilitary forces who extract payments from citizens at checkpoints.

Systemic discrimination

Outside of the Kurdish Regional Government in the north, this political system mostly benefitted Arab Shia Muslims close to the political parties after 2003.

This in turn led to Arab Sunni complaints of systemic discrimination in state-hiring practises and high unemployment for them.

The state, since the rise of Saddam Hussein, has been the largest entity employing Arab Sunnis, so the purges following 2003 ultimately led to a mass of unemployed men among this demographic.

This discrimination in employment proved to be one of the leading grievances raised by protesters throughout the country, such as those in Mosul, Fallujah, Ramadi, and Hawija from 2012 to 2013.

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Unlike the protests this summer, those protests were met with military force under Maliki’s government, creating the grievances that paved the way for ISIL to ride the wave of Arab Sunni discontent and push into their areas of Iraq.

Combined with an Iraqi armed forces devoted to extractive rent-seeking from the population, the regular Iraqi military lacked the discipline to combat ISIL during its foray into Mosul in 2014.

ISIL not only took advantage of this Arab Sunni discontent, it also created a model of governance that repudiated those corrupt practices of the Iraqi state.

ISIL has sought legitimacy among Iraqis by ending those extractive policies and by delivering services.

While ISIL probably leverages its “citizens” to give these rosy assessments of its administration, their complaints of their former Iraqi government have been echoed by Iraqis within Iraq itself, as demonstrated in the recent street protests.

Ibrahim al-Marashi is an assistant professor at the Department of History, California State University, San Marcos. He is the co-author of “Iraq’s Armed Forces: An Analytical History”.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.