The power of special grades employees comes not only from their official roles in ministries, but also, critically, from the political protection they receive from their patrons. This combination of top-level cover and influence is particularly useful when civil servants in the special grades clash with ministers.
Over the years, the special grades system has evolved. It has withstood and overcome challenges including elite contestation, intra-party hostility, political fragmentation and popular uprisings calling for reform. In 2016, the discourse of government formation changed when the major parties agreed to appoint ‘independent’ technocratic ministers. To some extent, this agreement has remained in place since then. However, it has actually enhanced the power of the special grades, as some of their number have taken up roles as the ‘technocratic’ ministers running the very ministries that had previously employed them. Even the 2019 October Uprising, which ended Adel Abdul Mahdi’s premiership, did not undermine the inner workings of the special grades system. Understanding the evolution of the system is essential to any discussion of how to reform the Iraqi state.
2006–10: Setting up the special grades system
The political use of the special grades system has its roots in the turmoil that followed the regime change after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Politicians returning from long exile believed that they faced a civil service that had been deeply politicized by 35 years of Baathist rule. Their first move to tackle this problem was the de-Baathification of Iraq’s civil service. This involved purging from government employment anyone who had previously been appointed to the top four levels of the Baath Party, and also banning former party members from the three top levels of civil service management. In the first four weeks after the US-led invasion of 2003, 41,324 state employees were sacked. This root-and-branch purge not only removed the institutional legacies and knowledge of state function in all government agencies, but it also allowed Iraq’s newly empowered political parties to insert their cadres at the top of state institutions. However, in these early years immediately following the invasion, the process was haphazard and ad hoc.
The politicization of the civil service became more organized during Nouri al-Maliki’s first premiership, from 2006 to 2010. All major political parties were attempting to place their followers in civil service positions. However, to increase his own power, bolster the coherence of the government and reduce his reliance on the dominant political parties, Maliki systematized this process. He reached back into pre-2003 legislation and found a 1966 law that legalized the use of special grades and the short-term appointment of senior civil servants in the Iraqi bureaucracy. This law gave the prime minister the legal cover he needed to appoint higher-paid loyalists in each government ministry and across the civil service. In an attempt to sidestep fractious ministerial debates in the cabinet, Maliki set about placing special grades appointees loyal to him in ministries whose coherence was threatened by walkouts and boycotts by the parties, some of which sought the collapse of his government. Maliki effectively created a network of loyal senior civil servants at the top of ministries, centralizing a degree of power in his own hands.
One of Maliki’s key steps in building his network was to create space for his own appointments. He began to target senior civil servants who had been haphazardly appointed under the CPA and the successor transitional governments (from 2003 to 2005), taking advice from lawyers such as Tariq Harb. In a later online post, Harb defended the move, arguing that any special grades appointed either by the CPA or by the interim and transitional governments had lacked the approval (from the Council of Ministers or the Council of Representatives) which they needed to be legal. Using this legal interpretation, Maliki justified the removal of old special grades personnel because they had not been approved by the newly appointed Council of Representatives.
However, this procedural expedient was not enough on its own to consolidate Maliki’s hold on state power. So he also sought other channels through which to remove non-loyal special grades personnel. Renewing de-Baathification became an essential tool in this quest. To this end, he pushed the enactment of the 2008 Law of the Supreme National Authority for Accountability and Justice, Article 6 of which authorized the removal of all members occupying special grades positions prior to 9 April 2003.
Maliki also relied on military successes to empower his moves against non-loyal civil servants. For instance, he used the March 2008 Charge of Knights campaign in Basra to remove special grades personnel whom he deemed problematic. In May, shortly after the campaign, he removed Jabbar al-Luabi from his position as director of the South Oil Company. At the time, a cable from the US embassy’s office in Basra argued the following:
By the end of his first term in office, Maliki had successfully removed a number of special grades civil servants and had begun populating these positions with his own loyalists. Crucially, the cabinet allowed him to make such appointments during this period because many of the political parties were still focused on the elite level of government and were less aware of the significance of civil servant nominations. The Sadrists, however, were aware of the importance of the special grades and began competing with Maliki. Other parties, however, did not have enough information on how the different institutions of the state worked together to fully appreciate and hence block what Maliki was hoping to achieve.
By the end of his first term in office, Maliki had successfully removed a number of special grades civil servants and had begun populating these positions with his own loyalists.
At the beginning of his first prime ministerial term in 2006, Maliki had been perceived as a weak, compromise candidate with no militia to support him. In response, he sought to use civilian state institutions – especially the special grades – to acquire and maintain power, projecting his influence on to government ministries weakened by a series of party political boycotts of the cabinet. Controlling and then expanding the special grades scheme gave Maliki increasing power across the various institutions of the Iraqi state, and allowed him to harvest information from and coordinate between different senior civil servants.
For the first two years of his premiership, however, the balance of power within the state did not move decisively in his favour. The ruling political parties continued to control the majority of ministries, having appointed senior party members as ministers. At this point, they retained the political influence to overrule the special grades civil servants whom Maliki had appointed.
Notwithstanding these struggles, this period marked the start of the systematic use of the special grades to politicize the senior ranks of the civil service. In particular, Maliki incrementally increased the number of special grades personnel placed in ministries, as he attempted to minimize the challenge that the major political parties posed to his continuation in power.
2010–15: Pluralization of the system and the use of wikala
By the time of the national parliamentary elections of 2010, amid a sharp reduction in politically motivated violence, Iraq’s ruling elite had managed to achieve a degree
of cohesion between the leaderships of the various political parties. Yet the 2010
election campaign and subsequent negotiations on the formation of a new government presented two new challenges to the entire political system.
The first challenge arose from the election victory of Iyad Allawi’s Iraqiyya coalition, which won 91 parliamentary seats. This compared with 89 seats for the Maliki-led State of Law coalition and 70 for the Iraqi National Alliance. Iraqiyya had fought the election on an overtly secular nationalist platform, winning seats in the south and across central Iraq. This posed a direct challenge to the ethno-sectarian ideological justification underpinning Iraq’s political system at that time.
The second challenge came from the power that Maliki had amassed primarily through his expanding control of the formal bureaucracy and special grades. The prime minister was increasingly using the special grades to overcome the fractured, decentred dynamics that had previously rendered the cabinet incoherent as a governing body, complicating coordination between ministries. The increased coherence of Maliki’s power – obtained partly through his use of special grades – challenged the primacy of the very parties that had created and benefited from the political system.
After 249 days of government formation negotiations, a compromise was eventually hammered out in November 2010. As the price for retaining the premiership, Maliki was forced to sign a nine-part agreement designed to place meaningful constraints on his power.
Part six of this intra-elite deal, known as the Erbil Agreement, retained but pluralized the special grades scheme, opening it up more than before to all of the political parties in the ruling elite. A committee was set up under the joint management of the prime minister, the president and the speaker of parliament. Between 2010 and 2015, this National Balance Committee was meant to oversee the distribution of special grades appointments across all parties in government, thus making the senior ranks of the civil service subject to the ethos of national unity. Yet most of the negotiations remained behind closed doors. The number of general special grades appointments across the Iraqi state grew from 2,962 in 2006 to 5,308 in 2019, and hundreds of positions were politicized. As prime minister, Maliki himself is estimated to have been responsible for 35 per cent of all special grades appointments.
At the same time, the pluralization of the system meant that Maliki could no longer appoint people to special grades positions purely on his own initiative. Instead, he was forced to work with the National Balance Committee to attain parliamentary approval for each appointment. To overcome this bureaucratic hurdle, he looked for another legal loophole and found wikala – a scheme for temporary contract appointments. Wikala contracts gave Maliki the ability to appoint his own special grades candidates on an acting, short-term basis that could be extended without parliamentary approval. In most cases, these loyalists remained in their positions even after their wikala contracts had technically expired. Eventually, wikala contracts would also make it easier to remove incumbent senior civil servants as political parties competed after each election.
The pluralization of the system meant that Maliki could no longer appoint people to special grades positions purely on his own initiative. Instead, he was forced to work with the National Balance Committee to attain parliamentary approval for each appointment.
After the 2010 Erbil Agreement and the creation of the National Balance Committee, a larger number of political parties began using special grades appointments, which they now controlled directly, to gain power within different institutions of the Iraqi state. The major political parties now knew the power that these appointments could wield. As a result, following the 2014 elections, party-aligned special grades appointments became an explicit part of the government formation negotiations, alongside ministerial appointments. Under the points-based system guiding the negotiations on government formation after each election, parties could now choose whether it was to their advantage to pick ministers, senior civil servants or a mixture of the two.
2016–20: Taking the system ‘underground’ in the age of technocrats
The mass protests that erupted in the summer of 2015 and continued into the spring of 2016 called for the appointment of technocratic ministers as a means of ending endemic corruption and limiting the domination of the state by the main political parties. In urban squares occupied by the protesters, a common slogan equated corrupt politicians (al-fasideen) with terrorists/members of ISIS, the latter of which at the time controlled up to one-third of the country. The protesters were struggling to find jobs due to a sluggish Iraqi economy, impacted by the 2014 oil price crash. They pointed to corruption, which they argued enriched the ruling parties and left little or no state resources to trickle down to ordinary citizens.
In their call for change, protest leaders – both from the Sadrist trend and the different civic trend groups – argued that technocratic ministers could be used to tackle corruption by challenging the politicization of ministries that had become so prevalent. The protest movement’s goal was to hold to account and weaken the post-2003 political parties by removing their access to power – access hitherto overtly achieved through their appointment of ministers to each government of national unity.
In response to these demands, the prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, agreed to change several of his ministers, and brought in technocrats with experience in the specific areas covered by the ministries in question. However, this move failed to depoliticize the Iraqi state. Instead, it consolidated the special grades system, which became even more important for the exercise of party political influence by empowering special grades appointees over weak technocratic ministers. As a consequence, ministers complained that their signatures on government contracts became mere ‘rubber stamps’ – formal authorization of decisions made elsewhere, beyond their control.
This shift in power within the Iraqi state was exemplified in the 2018 elections, in which the major competition between political parties was no longer for the overt appointment of cabinet ministers but rather for the covert allocation of special grades. As one Iraqi analyst argued after the elections of 2018:
Negotiations during the subsequent government formation process revolved around 500 to 700 special grades positions. Interviews carried out in Baghdad by the authors suggest that the Sadrists – who had won the largest share of the vote in the 2018 election – received the largest share of special grades appointments, numbering 200. They did not take any ministerial posts but gave their blessing to the appointment of weak independent ministers while focusing on access to the special grades. To ensure that their candidates were passed by the Council of Ministers, they focused on gaining control of the Secretary of the Council of Ministers (COMSEC), which oversaw decision-making on civil service appointments. All the other victorious parties took their own share of special grades positions, thus also placing loyalists in the senior ranks of the civil service across the state. After their installation, these party-aligned officials would be key players in government contracting in each ministry, siphoning off money to the respective parties to which they owed allegiance.
The role of special grades within the state has now become a major issue in Iraqi politics. By 2018 it had become a main topic in discussions about corruption. The Iraqi parliament debated the merits of temporary contracts (wikala) on several occasions, as parties outside the system sought to gain greater influence. In his talk to Chatham House’s Iraq Initiative in February 2019, Parliamentary Speaker Mohammad al-Halbousi argued that one of the key obstacles in tackling corruption was wikala-related corruption (fasad bil-wikala). In a parliamentary debate, a Fateh legislator, Ahmad al-Assadi, complained that his coalition was struggling to obtain special grades for itself.
The independent technocratic ministers appointed in response to the 2015–16 protests were unable to control their own civil servants and hence their ministries.
As illustrated above, the exercise of party political power in Iraq had thus moved from the level of minister to one level underneath, that of senior civil servant. The independent technocratic ministers appointed in response to the 2015–16 protests were unable to control their own civil servants and hence their ministries. The political parties subsequently shifted their focus from appointing their own people as ministers to making sure that they got as many special grades appointees as possible across all ministries.
2020 to present: Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s government and the promotion of special grades
The Adel Abdul Mahdi premiership, which began in October 2018, lasted only one year. From October 2019, mass demonstrations swept the country and removed what legitimacy the cabinet had gained from the previous year’s elections. Abdul Mahdi was forced to step down. After seven months of inconclusive negotiations, Mustafa al-Kadhimi became prime minister in May 2020. Kadhimi came to power promising the wide-ranging and sustainable political and economic reforms that the demonstrators had demanded. Media reports surrounding the appointment of Kadhimi’s cabinet stressed the high proportion of technocratic ministers it contained. This initially prompted suggestions that the new government might have achieved a higher level of autonomy from Iraq’s dominant political parties than any of its predecessors.
However, the composition of Kadhimi’s cabinet did not mark a major departure from the practice of previous governments. Instead, it indicated a further increase in the power of party-aligned special grades. Unlike the technocrats appointed to the cabinets under Abadi and Abdul Mahdi, a number of Kadhimi’s ministers were former senior civil servants from the very ministries which they had been appointed to lead. Apart from a couple of independent technocrats, the great majority of the new cabinet’s members were either ministers who had served their political patrons as senior civil servants in the same ministries or officials who had made agreements with political parties to gain their positions.
In spite of championing a reform agenda, Kadhimi has no more power to enact reforms than any of his predecessors did, and the prime minister remains constrained by the existing political system.
An episode involving a well-known Iraqi poet, Faris Harram, shed some light on the Kadhimi government’s process of formation. Kadhimi had asked Harram to become minister of culture, but as Harram went through the nomination process, the political party controlling the relevant ministry told Harram that his appointment would not be approved unless he met that party’s conditions. Ultimately, Harram could not agree to allowing the party to control his ministry, and as such he withdrew from the nomination process.
Given this background, Kadhimi’s current cabinet – and hence the functioning of his government today – cannot be said to represent a break with Iraq’s post-2003 political system. Instead, the cabinet’s composition displays evidence of further politicization of the Iraqi state. Long-standing party-aligned civil servants, who have for years been serving party interests in ministries, have now been appointed to actually run those ministries. They can be expected to maintain the close relationships with the parties that have protected and promoted them over many years.
In short, in spite of championing a reform agenda, Kadhimi has no more power to enact reforms than any of his predecessors did, and the prime minister remains constrained by the existing political system.