The Next War in Iraq Needs to be on Corruption


A particularly poignant banner raised at the pro-reform demonstrations in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square stated that “Daesh and corruption are two sides of the same coin.” Iraqis have long recognized the connection between rampant corruption and the vulnerability of the state to violent extremism. As the Iraqi government nears the end of the battle to liberate Iraqi territory from ISIL, it must develop a robust strategy for tackling the extreme corruption embedded in every part of the state apparatus.

Corruption reduces the resources available to the government, limits its ability to provide the services demanded by Iraqi citizens, damages its legitimacy in the eyes of the population, and offers greater scope for violent, sub-state actors to gain popular support.

The Iraqi government has a multitude of anti-corruption bodies, but their ability to police and prosecute corrupt acts is heavily limited by their subordination to political interests, their poor organizational structure, and by the country’s confusing penal code. The Integrity Commission, for example, was established by the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority to investigate corruption cases and to refer them to a court. Each ministry has special inspectors general offices. The problem is that these inspectors are deeply influenced by their respective ministers, who can fire them. Inspectors are thus disinclined to rigorously pursue corruption allegations, especially when investigations could threaten the senior leadership in the ministry. It also means that the minister has significant leeway to direct corruption probes towards political rivals. The work of the inspectors general is also marred by a poor procedural framework, in which inspectors rarely co-ordinate with each other and have few instructions from their leadership. The result is that the inspectors often wait to act on instructions to investigate particular matters, which have often been generated by political developments, rather than generating new investigations themselves.

The leadership of the Integrity Commission has been unable to overhaul this system without suffering punitive measures from the country’s political leadership. Several directors of the Integrity Commission have been forced from their positions by the government, and some have complained of being subject to violent threats. Judge Rahim al-Ugaili, for example, who was appointed acting head of the Commission in 2008, was repeatedly threatened and ultimately dismissed after trying to rigorously investigate corrupt practices. Then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki replaced him with Judge Alaa Jawad Hamid, who some think actively prevented the Commission from fulfilling its mandate.

Even when the Integrity Commission manages to compile cases, these are rarely translated into convictions by Iraq’s highly politicized judiciary. A 2006 report by the U.S. Department of State on Iraq’s anti-corruption programs found that, of 450 cases which were forwarded to the Central Criminal Court, just 80 cases resulted in arrests, and only six adjudications were handed down.

Iraq does not need any new anti-corruption initiatives. It needs to overhaul its existing apparatus and to enable it to act with genuine independence from the political elite. Although the international community can support this process, the most important ingredient will be genuine political will to reform from the Iraqi leadership.

Although the United States failed to sufficiently prioritize transparency and good governance in the early years after the invasion, it has since invested in some anti-corruption efforts that have failed to produce substantial change. The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad has an office that oversees seven anti-corruption projects worth more than $26.7 million. These projects include an investigative training program for Iraqi inspectors general, a provincial accountability and governance program, an integrity database sharing program, and a mentoring program for integrity investigators. In addition to this, the United Nations Development Program recently signed an agreement to bolster the capacity of the Iraqi government to detect, investigate, and prosecute high profile crimes and complex corruption cases. The World Bank is training Iraqi civil servants on best practices regarding procurement.

While training, mentoring, and capacity efforts are important, real change requires political leaders to recognize the deeply corrosive impact of corruption on the stability of the state. The international community can only do so much. In the end, it must be Iraqi leaders who commit substantial political capital to achieving reform.

Case studies from countries around the world that have successfully tackled corruption demonstrate the importance of internal political will. After Liberia emerged from 14 years of civil war, for example, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf announced a zero-tolerance policy for corruption. She fired 17,000 civil servants in her first few months in office, declared her assets, and required cabinet members to do the same, and placed non-Liberians at the heart of the country’s auditing institutions and as inspectors in ministries. Although corruption remains a problem in Liberia, the improvement has been impressive; Liberia was ranked 137 out of 158 countries for transparency in 2005, and by 2010 it was ranked 87.

Hong Kong eradicated corruption by establishing the Independent Commission against Corruption as an organization with full operational independence. It had a comprehensive long-term strategy along with substantial resources for training and execution. The Commission used community-based programs and mass media to bring about a change in norms that enabled a lasting change in societal attitudes towards corruption.

The good news is that Iraqi citizens are bringing increasing pressure to bear on the political class to tackle corruption. Changing conditions in Iraq may soon force politicians to take the issue seriously. Large-scale protests took place across Iraq throughout 2015 and 2016 in which citizens called on the Iraqi government to deliver services and hold corrupt officials to account. The protests, which were sparked by electricity shortages experienced during the extreme heat in the summer of 2015, occurred in Baghdad, across southern Iraq, and in the Kurdistan region. The leading religious authorities in Najaf backed the protests and called on the government to undertake substantial reforms. In response, the Abadi government set out an ambitious seven-point plan designed to slash the number of government posts, rationalize ministries, and to abolish sectarian quotas for government jobs. The reform program quickly ran aground because of opposition within the Iraqi parliament and among ministers. The protests were eventually hijacked by Muqtada al-Sadr in an effort to reassert his political relevance. Nonetheless, the experience has helped to galvanize Iraqi civil society, and there is every indication that such citizen-led efforts to force reform will continue.

The international community and financial institutions, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which are helping to finance the Iraqi government, should work with civil society to escalate the pressure on the government to take substantial steps towards reform. To be most effective, future anti-corruption efforts should focus on enforcing new transparency rules on all senior political figures, rather than solely working on historical corruption allegations. That way, the government can force politicians to reduce their corrupt practices while avoiding the charges of politicization that come with targeting individual political figures. This is especially important given that Iraq is entering a new election cycle in which efforts to sink the political careers of one political leader or another could threaten the legitimacy of the entire political process.

One step that the government could take would be requiring all candidates competing in the 2018 parliamentary elections to declare their incomes, assets and financial interests, and to require that the winning candidates continue to release this information annually during their time in office. If the international community makes the fight against corruption a priority after the defeat of ISIL in Iraq, and Iraqi civil society continues its campaign to overhaul the broken political system in the country, the conditions may finally be created for a much needed turning point in the fight to end corruption in Iraq.


Nussaibah Younis is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council where she directs the Task Force on the Future of Iraq. Sali Mahdy is an intern in the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Image: DoD photo by Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro

Correction: This article incorrectly stated that corruption investigations are referred to the Central Criminal Court, which has not been the case at least since 2011 when the law governing these cases changed. They are now referred to a special Integrity Court. The article also implied a direct command relationship between the inspectors generals and the Integrity Commission, which is not the case. The wording above has been changed to reflect this.