Iraqi Leader’s Reform Bid Seeks to Temper Anger Over Corruption

Haidar Al-Abadi
Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi. Photographer: Stephane De Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images

Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi will seek approval from parliament on Tuesday for an anti-corruption plan that would abolish key government posts after days of street protests against alleged government graft and waste.

The bill, backed by Iraq’s influential top Shiite cleric and U.S. officials, would abolish three vice president positions, launch a corruption probe and scrap a system of sectarian and party quotas for top posts put in place after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

While the plan eased tensions among street demonstrators and drew measured praise from the U.S. State Department, former American advisers on Iraq expressed skepticism that any new anti-corruption drive can survive the country’s fractious politics.

“This is a great start for reforms that are a decade overdue,” said Ali Khedery, who served as an adviser to five U.S. ambassadors and three heads of U.S. Central Command in Iraq from 2003 to 2010. “But it’s very hard to root out the cancer when it’s corrupted the entire body.”

Thousands of Iraqis took to the streets on Friday to protest what they describe as widespread corruption in OPEC’s second-biggest producer. The plunge in oil prices and the battle against Islamic State militants has depleted the government’s coffers.

Regime Change

While approval of Abadi’s plan in Iraq’s slow-moving parliament is far from assured, it enjoys the support of the country’s most influential cleric, Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, and Abadi’s predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, whose current position as a vice president would be eliminated.

Iraqi Vice President Ayad Allawi, whose post would also be abolished, said in a Baghdad press conference on Monday that Abadi is overriding the constitution. Allawi said he would call on Iraqis to protest and demand early elections if the prime minister “failed to carry out his responsibilities.”

Abadi’s changes amount to an overthrow of the system introduced by the U.S. since the 2003 invasion and ouster of former dictator Saddam Hussein, said Emma Sky, a former adviser to the U.S. military in Iraq and author of “The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq.”

That might not be bad, Sky said, because the system created with U.S. backing “inadvertently institutionalized sectarianism and led to rampant corruption as ministries became the fiefdoms of politicians to disperse patronage.”

‘Mobster’ Rule

Khedery, now chairman and chief executive officer of Dragoman Partners LLC in Dubai, likened the Baghdad government to 1920’s-era Chicago. “The entire city is run by mobsters,” he said. “The entire country is rotten to its core.”

Even if the plan gets adopted, Khedery said, “there could be physical retaliation. There could be violence. People have been known to be killed for $100 in Iraq.”

At the State Department in Washington, spokesman John Kirby said the proposed government overhaul is “an internal Iraqi matter, but we do commend Prime Minister Abadi’s initiative to promote improved government services and transparency.”

Abadi “has really moved with alacrity to try to get at better governance inside Iraq, to be more inclusive, to be more responsive to the Iraqi people,” Kirby said on Monday.

Yet analysts such as Sky said it’s not clear whether Abadi’s plan would do enough to create a more inclusive government. The minority Sunnis, in particular, have long felt alienated from a Shiite-led government in Baghdad.

“How does he intend to signal to the Sunnis that the end of the quota system will ensure improved service delivery rather than cement their exclusion from the state?” asked Sky, who is now director of Yale World Fellows.

Economic Woes

Abadi also could face blowback from Kurdish leaders, who have expressed concern that the removal of an ethnic quota system would weaken their political power and solidify Shiite rule.

Nor is the plan likely to provide any major immediate boost to Iraq’s economy, which remains largely dependent on oil revenues and recently took a bailout from the International Monetary Fund to meets its budget deficit of about $25 billion.

Even so, the plan deserves support, if only because Abadi is trying to respond to a democratic push for change, according to a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq under President Barack Obama.

While the chance of success may not be large, “there’s a real risk if he doesn’t act, too,” said James Jeffrey, who’s now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “People will look for someone to blame, and he’s the prime minister.”

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