The Iraq Report: Government corruption and abuses fan flames of dissent

The Iraq Report: Government corruption and abuses fan flames of dissent

Our fortnightly round-up from Iraq features ministers on the run after corruption convictions, a sense of inertia in parliament, and new fears for women in a post-Saddam era.
7 min read
05 December, 2018
Iraqis have held huge protests against government corruption [AFP]
Despite several parliamentary sessions convened this month alone, the Iraqi government is still not fully formed with Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi flustered by the factionalism that has plagued numerous administrations since the collapse of Saddam Hussein's in 2003. 

With this latest failure, a political confrontation is looming and could cast Iraq into even more chaos as different factions vie for power, influence and access to treasury funds to continue to finance their partisan networks.

Meanwhile, dissent is fomenting as Iraqis express anger at the slow rate of the anti-corruption drive pledged by numerous administrations and the trials in absentia that sound like they are meting out tough punishment, but in reality perpetrators are abroad enjoying their ill-gotten gains.

Protests have also broken out in support of women who suffer some of the world's most crippling rates of domestic violence, abuse and exploitation. With all these problems converging, it could only be a matter of time before yet another violent outbreak of protests grips Iraq and shakes the foundations of the country's political system installed under cover of American munitions in 2003.

Corrupt ministers escape justice abroad

Iraq issued arrest warrants for a former trade minister and two senior officials after a special court in Baghdad ruled last Thursday that they were guilty of embezzling $14.3 million in public funds.

While the minister was not named, a source at the Integrity Commission told the AFP that the most high-profile convict was former Trade Minister Malas Abdulkarim al-Kasnazani. Kasnazani and the two other officials were tried in absentia and sentenced to seven years in prison.

While their current whereabouts are unknown, they are known to have fled Iraq before they could be put on trial and have so far escaped justice.

Kasnazani briefly served as trade minister in the administration of former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi but was sacked in 2015 after he failed to turn up for work. The ex-minister has a history of committing fraud as he was arrested in the 1990s for forging the signature of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Iraq is a country wracked by not only violence but also by crippling corruption that has cost the war-torn country hundreds of billions of dollars. While many politicians have promised a drive against the corruption that is rotting Iraq inside out, little has been done or achieved. When convictions are made it is usually in absentia and incarcerations, while punishingly long, are also increasingly rare.

Earlier this year, another former trade minister, Abdel Falah al-Sudani, was slapped with a 21-year jail sentence for "corruption", "negligence" and "misconduct" while in office by a special anti-corruption court inaugurated by ex-PM Abadi. Sudani served as trade minister in the administration of Nuri al-Maliki whose government was frequently accused of mass corruption.

Consistently ranking at the bottom of Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index, Iraq is one of the most corrupt countries on the planet. Not only are ministers frequently implicated in fraud but the oversized public sector is ripe for manipulation, with thousands of "phantom" employees who earn salaries but do not actually work. According to parliamentary records, this has cost Iraq $228 billion since 2003, although this number could be significantly higher.

Shia hardliners block appointment of new ministers

Iraqi lawmakers failed again on Tuesday to agree the appointment of new ministers despite Prime Minister Mahdi having only 40 days allotted for the formation of a new government. Two large Shia Islamist-led blocs are largely responsible as they could not agree on the candidates between them.
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Mahdi has already appointed 14 ministers to his cabinet who have received parliamentary approval. However, the Sairoun coalition led by militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr have disagreed sharply with the Conquest Alliance's choices of who the remaining eight ministers should be. The biggest point of contention appears to be which men will take responsibility for the defence and interior ministries, two highly influential departments with sizeable budgets.

The New Arab's Arabic-language service reported that the Conquest Alliance - which counts the pro-Iran Badr Organisation's Hadi al-Ameri as one of its leaders - was accused by the Sadrists of trying to "impose their will on the people" by insisting on their candidates and not on those put forward by the prime minister.

Lawmakers boycotted the session despite the attendance bell ringing six times and, without a quorum, the vote on the ministerial positions had to be suspended yet again.

Mahdi was tasked by President Barham Salih on 24 October to form a government after parliament granted a vote of confidence to the incumbent, leaving him with 40 days to form a government. Now that he has failed to form a government and is out of time, other candidates may be asked to step in, making Mahdi's position even more unstable and weakening his hand.

If Mahdi wants to keep the country's top job, he may find himself sacrificing a few of his "technocratic" candidates to appease the powerful Shia fundamentalist groups that owe their loyalty to Iran. Mahdi himself has a long relationship with Tehran and so these concessions seem all the more likely to manifest themselves sooner rather than later.

Women's rights in the spotlight once again

Following a spate of grisly murders of high-profile women in Iraq over the summer, Iraqis have been repeatedly taken to the streets to call for a greater respect for women's rights and freedoms.

Hundreds of protesters gathered near the statue of famous poet al-Mutannabi last month in downtown Baghdad, blasting the government for failing to take women's rights seriously and demanding an end to so-called "honour crimes".

Placards held aloft by protesters read: "There is no honour in honour crimes."

Every year, hundreds of women are killed after being accused of immorality, disobedience to their husbands, or dishonouring their family name by falling in love with men whom their fathers disapprove of.

The Organisation for Women's Freedom in Iraq (OWFI) planned the protests, with activist and founder Inar Mohammed accusing the state of turning a blind eye to violence against women and facilitating the degradation of women's rights.

"The state is collaborating with tribes in the killings of women under the guise of dishonour to society," Mohammed said. "We are here today against these tribal killings, against child marriages and against all violence women endure."

In the last several months, many women have been subjected to public humiliation and shaming, and many of these women have been subsequently killed after being accused of being lewd and immoral women.
The state is collaborating with tribes in the killings of women under the guise of dishonour to society
Speaking to The New Arab, journalist Joumana Mumtaz slammed the parties responsible for defaming women publicly.

"I told the story of Tara Fares, a very famous Instagram star, six months ago. I wanted to raise awareness about her case," Mumtaz said in reference to a famous Iraqi social media star who was murdered three months ago.

"She was risking her life and occasionally threatened only because she wanted to live her life as she wished. She was killed in September. Just being a woman is enough of a reason to be killed."

On Monday, the BBC released a report on Iraq's secret shelters for survivors of honour crimes and domestic violence, detailing how care workers are often targets for attacks and death threats. The shelters also protect women who have been victims of sex trafficking and exploitation, and an increasingly hardline religious establishment has made these shelters targets for militia groups.

Women's rights activists in Iraq frequently criticise the government by stating that they had far more rights under Saddam Hussein than they do under Iraq's new political system. Such comparisons with the former dictatorship could risk creating a nostalgia for a type of rule that is far from democratic and could lead to disillusionment with the post-2003 political process. If this disillusionment sets in across society, it could spell the end of Iraq's democratic experiment as we know it.