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A Lesson in Undemocratic Institution Building

Failing Oversight: Iraq’s Unchecked Government

International Crisis Group

Middle East Report N°113, 26 September 2011

Since 2008, the Iraqi state has appeared strengthened by the relatively strong decline in violence. However, since violence has decreased, the imbedded nature of corruption at every administrative level has become ever more apparent, with the International watchdog organization Transparency International ranking the country at the very bottom of its global corruption perceptions index (175th out of 178 in 2010). Corruption has become widespread and entrenched in the structures of the Iraqi state and this has contributed to a severe decay in public services. This report from the International Crisis Group (ICG) attempts to confront these issues head-on. Yet in the end it appears trapped within its own conceptual framework, unable to make recommendations that reach beyond the diagnoses of illness within the governmental structures.

During the six years of violence after the 2003 US invasion, an ever-stronger culture of impunity emerged among senior officials, while investigators, auditors and law enforcers were paralyzed. In an early attempt to confront such problems, the US Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) created the current oversight framework in 2004 to limit corruption. While the ICG report does not provide much insight into the conditions prior to the 2003 US invasion, it does highlight many of the structural deficiencies of the current framework. The CPA, according to the report, enacted a number of problematic reforms from the start, which stripped the Board of Supreme Audit – previously Iraq’s only such institutions – of its powers and made it unable to oversee public procurements and refer suspected corruption cases directly to the court. This authority was instead transferred to the Integrity Commission, an institution established in 2004, which to this day cannot function independently due to staffing problems and restricted access to government department. The Integrity Commission has therefore been dependent on the Inspectors General, another CPA-established institution, with auditors in all state institutions including ministries. But the legal and administrative framework of the Inspectors General is completely deficient and the institution is therefore not of much help to anyone. And as if that was not enough, the Council of Representatives, seemingly the most important institution in the new oversight framework, is the most ineffective of all.

Thus continues the story of nonfunctioning institutions in the Iraqi oversight framework. These institutions, in turn, cannot be held to account by the judicial system, which has shown itself to be highly vulnerable to political pressure. Its rulings in a number of high-profile disputes have given the Maliki government a freer hand to govern as it pleases, with ever fewer institutional checks. In general, the report shows that the levels of corruption are almost infinite, from deep structural deficiencies, to personal connections between judiciary and executive powers. Similarly, the origins of corruption stems from a multiplicity of factors, such as the massive inflow of capital since 2003, the breakdown in security and in the criminal justice system leading to impunity, targeted assassinations of state officials impeding the work of oversight agencies, and gaps in the legal and institutional framework established to provide a check on government, as shown above.

The effects of corruption saturate Iraqi society. Billions of public dollars have seemingly disappeared owing to gaps in public procurements, while nepotism and bribery continue unabated. Consequently, living standards have declined in terms of health, education, and electricity sectors, “even paling in comparison with the country’s own recent past.” Meanwhile, the impending US withdrawal at the end of 2011 will test security forces’ ability to maintain a level of law and order, which clearly does not apply to the most powerful members of Iraqi society. Such lack of legitimacy on the part of ruling elites increases risks of insurgency—and the demands of the people have only become more pronounced with the spread of dissent throughout the Arab world.

Spontaneous demonstrations broke out in February of 2011 in Suleimaniya, the Kurdistan region’s second-largest city. Iraqi youth leaders picked up on the development and launched a series of countrywide demonstrations on 25 February, dubbed “day of rage.” Maliki responded with a 100-day deadline on the government to improve service delivery to the people and reduce corruption. This deadline expired on 7 June with no or little relevant legislation during the 100-day period. Subsequent demonstrations in Baghdad, albeit poorly attended, have been met by violent pro-government forces, which have not been stopped by the police and thus appear to be acting with the consent of the regime. While the regime may be attempting to buy itself time until expected oil revenue will allow an improvement in oil deliveries, dissent has spread to corners of the government itself, as the chief of the Integrity Commission resigned on 9 September. Meanwhile, demonstrations continue and appear to be growing in number, with several thousands demonstrating in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square on 9 September.

It is therefore clear that substantial reform is long overdue. The ICG deport argues that there has been no lack of opportunities in this regard, as technical experts “have excelled in presenting workable proposals” while almost none have been adopted. Such proposals include a law forcing political parties to disclose their financial interests, rules to improve the oversight institution’s performance, and a law to protect the independence of the Supreme Court. Until such actions are taken, the report argues, the government will continue to be unchecked and corruption with not be stopped.

Ultimately, then, the report advocates a strengthening of the anti-corruption measures in place, particularly through legal reform. However, as the report has spent much time showing, the political establishment has continually shown itself unwilling to approve such legislation—and if it was passed, personal agreements between branches of government were likely to obstruct the effects of such legislation. As the report itself concludes, there is little reason to believe that the government would advocate any other reform than that which allows it to consolidate its own power. The final sentence of the report, stating that the necessary reform requires “unity of vision and good faith—qualities desperately lacking today” touches upon issues which the report only barely addresses as a whole. The report ends up concluding that the Iraqi government must save its people from the Iraqi government. Asking the government to solve a problem it has been shown very willing to sustain is optimistic at best and unhelpful at worst.

To read the ICG report in full, please click here

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