Shermeen Yousif

After Two Decades of a Corruption Era in Iraq

An imaginary AI-generated picture depicting some Iraqi people standing in front of a pile of money, in an apocalyptic landscape

On April 12, 2023, the Iraqi Government and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) formalized their commitment to act against corruption by signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that aims to foster transparency, accountability, and integrity within both the public and private sectors. This need for anti-corruption initiatives is the consequence of two decades of systemic corruption. After the 2003 war, Iraq embarked on a turbulent journey characterized by a pervasive and far-reaching presence of corruption that permeated the government and its various institutions. Since then, Iraq has grappled with systemic corruption represented by increasingly deteriorating public services, growing inequalities, a weakened adherence to the rule of law, instances of gender-based discrimination, and a prevailing distrust between Iraqi citizens and public institutions. This Op-Ed aims to provide an analysis of some of the underlying causes of corruption in Iraq, shedding light on the factors that have contributed to its persistence, and providing insights to predict the potential outcomes of initiatives such as the UNDP’s aforementioned initiative.

The Aftermath of the Dictator’s Corrupt Regime

The origins of governmental corruption in Iraq can be attributed to a nuanced interplay of historical and contextual factors that are deeply entwined with the legacy of the late dictator’s despotic reign. Under his rule, a culture of cronyism, patronage, and bribery permeated the country’s political fabric, establishing a deeply entrenched system of corruption. The concentration of power fostered an environment that was highly conducive to corrupt practices, a reality that persisted even in the aftermath of his removal from power.

The subsequent period of prolonged conflict and instability that followed the 2003 war further exacerbated the prevalence of corruption in Iraq. Weakened institutions, the absence of robust supervision mechanisms, and the erosion of the rule of law fostered the proliferation of corrupt practices. The resulting power vacuum afforded political elites and bureaucratic functionaries ample opportunities to exploit their positions for personal benefit, thereby aggravating the pervasive culture of corruption within the government apparatus.

 “Machine Politics” at the Core of Corruption

At the heart of the profoundly rooted corruption that plagues Iraq is a system characterized by favoritism and nepotism, in which the ruling government wields significant influence over the distribution of privileges, positions, and benefits. These privileges can be used for personal gain, but they also require absolute loyalty and allegiance to the ruler. This intricate network of reciprocal exchanges creates a complex “web of reciprocities,” forging a symbiotic relationship between those in power and those who are governed by fostering mutual dependence and interdependence. Access to opportunities, positions of influence, and the allocation of resources have continued to be determined by patronage networks with profound roots.

Evidently, Iraq has experienced “machine politics” since 2003, which is a political system characterized by the centralized control of power, typically by a dominant political organization or party whose political leaders exert influence and maintain control through the strategic use of patronage, manipulation of electoral processes, and the establishment of loyal networks of supporters. In post-2003 Iraq, Shia Islamist parties and movements represented machine politics, mobilizing their electoral base and maintaining a high voting rate over multiple election cycles, such as the victory of the Sadrists in the most recent elections of October 2021.

The Problem with the Oil-Dependent Economy

Another significant factor to Iraq’s corruption is the presence of abundant oil reserves, which paradoxically functioned as a factor of corruption. The oil sector, serving as a substantial revenue source, has magnetized a network of unscrupulous actors who exploit their positions to embezzle funds and manipulate contracts, leading to a culture of rent-seeking, in which individuals compete to profit from controlling valuable resources, instead of engaging in productive endeavors. The sectarian and ethnic fault lines woven into Iraq’s political landscape have controlled the oil revenue and further fueled corruption. Political factions, often representing specific religious or ethnic groups, perpetuate corrupt practices to consolidate power and secure resources for their constituencies.

Weak Governance and Lack of Transparency

Weak governance structures in Iraq have significantly contributed to the persistent corruption within the country. The deterioration of governance can be attributed to several factors, including ineffective regulatory mechanisms, limited accountability, and a lack of transparency. These shortcomings have created fertile ground for corruption to thrive. Regulatory mechanisms that should act as safeguards against corruption, such as anti-corruption laws, enforcement agencies, and whistleblower protection, have been ineffective or poorly implemented.

Additionally, the lack of transparency in public administration has played a major role in perpetuating corruption. The absence of clear and accessible information regarding government activities creates an environment where corrupt practices can go unnoticed and unchecked. Opaque practices in awarding contracts and tenders provide opportunities for bribery, kickbacks, and embezzlement. The absence of fair competition and accountability in procurement processes allows corrupt individuals to manipulate the system to their advantage, leading to financial losses for the state and undermining public trust.

The Consequences of an Era of Corruption

For twenty years, Iraq has undergone significant transformations, including periods of civil war, electoral reforms, political party fragmentation, leadership changes, and popular uprisings. Despite these events, the fundamental system of political corruption that forms the basis of the elite pact has remained unchallenged. Corruption’s entrenched system has effectively evaded reform efforts to date. Even the significant pressure exerted by the 2019 protests, which were the largest and longest lasting since 2003, was insufficient to bring about effective reforms. Complex factors, such as the entrenchment of political parties, the politicization of state institutions, and the elusiveness of special interest groups, have hampered efforts to effectively combat corruption. Future attempts of overcoming these obstacles and achieving sustainable reform in Iraq remains daunting.

About the Author
Shermeen is an assistant professor, a female academic who witnessed women’s rights issues within the civil unrest of post-war Iraq, escaped to the United States and earned a doctorate degree. She is an activist and a writer who focuses on social and political change in Iraq and the Middle East, as well as feminism and increasing awareness of women’s rights in the region.
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