Politically sanctioned corruption in Iraq is a key impediment to good governance – and all the more intractable a problem for being embedded into the country’s elite pact.
‘My signature is just a rubber stamp after contracts are already approved.’ In a discussion in Baghdad during the research for this paper, an Iraqi cabinet minister explained to the authors that every Sunday he would convene his weekly team meeting at his ministerial office and that, much to his initial surprise, his assistants would tell him to sign certain contracts and block others. When he challenged or questioned a contract, he was met with resistance from some of his employees, on whom he depended to run the ministry. If he went further and overturned a decision, relying on his formal powers as the most senior authority in the ministry, he would start to receive phone calls and text messages. In these communications, the heads of the major political parties – which controlled the ministerial assistants whom the minister had attempted to overrule – would threaten the minister.
The constraints described above are not an anomaly in Iraq – they are a product of the country’s political system. Many Iraqi government ministers have publicly expressed frustration at their inability to use the power they should have as the heads of state institutions to make decisions or pursue specific policy agendas. Instead, their own employees – empowered through political parties – effectively act as decision-makers.
Under Iraq’s post-2003 political system, the process of forming a government after an election involves parties competing for influence in each government ministry – and for the resources each commands. This system functions as a kind of elite pact. It ensures that parties are rewarded for their participation in the electoral process by becoming members of governments of national unity. These dynamics, originally put in place to democratize the country in the aftermath of the regime change that accompanied the US-led invasion, govern Iraq’s political system today.
In the early years of this system’s existence, a lot of political attention focused on the commanding heights of the formal state. Parties competed for the ‘three presidencies’ – the positions of president of the republic, prime minister and speaker of parliament – as well as for ministerial appointments and the chairs of powerful commissions. During these early years, controlling the appointment of a particular minister meant gaining power over the relevant ministry.
Over the years, Iraq’s political parties have pushed the politicization of formal state institutions further down into the bureaucracy. Across government institutions, from cabinet ministries to independent commissions, parties place loyalists in positions where they serve the interests of the party before those of the state or the wider Iraqi population.
One area where this competition for senior civil service positions has become significant is in the ‘special grades’ (al-darajat al-khasa) scheme. Hundreds of officials in politicized special grades, spread across all the formal institutions of the state, have dominated Iraq’s government with impunity since at least 2005, following the first national election after the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime. In competition with each other, members of the special grades use the assets of the ministries in which they work to benefit the parties they represent.
Although some ministers are independent technocrats and nominally above the demands of party politics, in reality they often act at the behest of the civil servants who run their ministries.
Today, although some ministers are independent technocrats and nominally above the demands of party politics, in reality they often act at the behest of the civil servants who run their ministries. As such, a minister’s signature on a government contract issued by a particular ministry becomes little more than a rubber stamp, formalizing a deal concluded behind the scenes by assistants aligned to a particular political party or parties. Alternatively, these civil servants at times act as chokepoints stopping ministerial decisions.
This approach to the formation of governments and the subsequent functioning of the state has led to a rapid expansion in government payrolls, the political sanctioning of endemic corruption, and the balance-of-payments crisis in which the Iraqi government currently finds itself. The nature of this political system and its entrenchment in public life mean that meaningful and sustained economic reform will be very difficult to achieve.
The mass protests that dominated Baghdad and southern Iraq from October 2019 onwards – known as the ‘October Revolution’ or ‘October Uprising’ – focused specifically on this political system. Unlike in previous protests since 2009, the young demonstrators were not principally demanding better services or employment. Nor were they calling for the removal of a specific political party or leader. Instead, they demanded the end of muhasasa – the ethno-sectarian power-sharing process that they blamed for the failings of the post-2003 political system. These protesters were the first major group within Iraqi society to conclude that the main barrier to reform is not primarily personal or petty corruption or an excess of power in the wrong hands. They took aim instead at the mechanics of the system itself, and at how it enables the major political parties to share wealth and power gained through corrupt access to the Iraqi state.
International policymakers have expressed repeated frustration at their inability, when taking part in formal diplomatic processes, to engage with the real power-holders in Iraq. They understand that ministers, from the prime minister downwards, face constraints that do not allow them to enact reform policies which they profess to favour. Power in Iraq does not reside in the formal, transparent and hierarchical institutions of the state, or with the official heads of ministries. Rather, power lies with political parties and their loyalists, the latter being senior civil servants who generate revenue for their party political sponsors from state coffers.
To understand the barriers to reforming Iraq’s state and economy, Iraqi and international policymakers must focus on the role of politically sanctioned corruption in the country. In part, this means looking at the use of the above-mentioned special grades in the civil service, as these have become a core mechanism of party power within the institutions of the state.
About this paper
This paper traces the evolution of the post-2003 political system, with the special grades as a critical component, and its implications for the sustainable reform of the state in Iraq. Chapter 2 argues that Iraq’s power-sharing system – although designed to reduce ethno-sectarian tensions – has encouraged corruption by enabling political parties and their loyalists from all sects and ethnicities to capture key state institutions. Chapter 3 then argues that researchers and policymakers have often understood corruption in Iraq primarily as driven by personal greed. However, politically sanctioned corruption is in fact the main driver of all forms of corruption. Chapter 4 traces the evolution of the special grades system to the present day. Finally, Chapter 5 offers recommendations for policymakers seeking to engage in Iraq. Its point of departure is to suggest that the root of corruption in the country is the political system – with schemes such as the special grades
at its centre.