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In Iraq's anticorruption reforms, a rejection of US-backed model

The US had demanded broader representation of Iraq's ethnic groups in top positions to enhance government legitimacy. But the expensive posts, seen as encouraging corruption, are being eliminated.

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People shout slogans during a demonstration to show support for Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi at Tahrir Square in central Baghdad, August, 9, 2015.

Ahmad Mousa/Reuters

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The Iraqi parliament’s approval Tuesday of anticorruption reforms eliminates top political posts established to address US demands for broader representation of Iraq’s ethnic groups as a means of enhancing government legitimacy.

Far from garnering support, however, the three vice presidential positions and three deputy prime ministers were seen as expensive political appointments that did little to enhance the competence of the government in its dealings with pressing security and social policy challenges.

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Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the move after widespread protests over an inadequate government response to a severe heat wave that underscored its broader shortcomings. Bolstered by the approval of a top Shiite cleric, it is the first significant restructuring of the government since the system based on ethnic quotas was established.

The US-backed model was long criticized for giving a platform to unqualified candidates and encouraging corruption.

The Iraqi government currently has three vice presidents who have played leading roles in Iraqi politics since the ousting of Saddam Hussein’s regime by the United States in 2003: Shiite former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki; Ayad Allawi, a former interim prime minister and secular Shiite whose predominantly Sunni alliance won the most seats in national elections in 2010; and a prominent Sunni leader, Osama al-Nujaifi.

The country also has three deputy prime ministers – a Shiite, a Sunni, and a Sunni Kurd – who fill largely ceremonial but costly positions.

Under the reforms, these posts will be eliminated, and senior political appointments will no longer be based on sectarian or party quotas.

Among the Iraqi politicians welcoming Abadi’s proposal were Mr. Maliki and Mr. Nujaifi.

“We are witnessing the end of the post-2003 Iraq,” Maria Fantappie, Iraq analyst for the International Crisis Group, told The New York Times.

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Mr. Abadi’s announced the plan to radically reshape the dysfunctional political system Sunday, after electricity cuts sparked the protests.

“All of the people we spoke to here say they want to see an end to rampant corruption,” Al Jazeera’s Baghdad correspondent Mohammed Jamjoom said Monday. “They want the return of basic services, they want electricity, they want to have air conditioning at a time when Iraq is experiencing a blazingly hot record heat wave, and they want to have clean water.”

The final green light to pursue Abadi’s reforms came from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is widely respected among the country’s Shiites. In his sermon last Friday, Ayatollah Sistani urged Abadi to make appointments based on ability rather than party or sectarian affiliation.

"Sistani's call for Abadi to take bold decisions was the perfect support at the perfect time,” political analyst Ahmed Younis told Reuters. “It gave Abadi leverage and granted him immunity against any possible opposition.”

Abadi took office last September at a time of a political impasse, with Islamic State militants having taken over large swathes the country.

Since then Abadi has taken steps to bring the country together, including replacing incompetent commanders and striking an oil deal with Iraqi Kurdistan, but none has been as remarkable as his decision on reshaping the government.

“It’s the boldest we have ever seen Abadi act,” Ahmed Ali, an Iraq expert and senior fellow at the Institute of Regional and International Studies at the American University of Iraq told The New York Times. “He had not been decisive up to this point.”