Iraq’s Challenges and Abadi’s Reform Agenda

After more than a decade since the United States-led invasion, Iraq still struggles to be a functioning state. Political, economic and social problems have beset the country. Failures in the functioning of the state have led to widespread protests in several cities over the last couple of weeks. In order to answer the demands of the protestors and overcome challenges within the state apparatus, Prime Minister Abadi introduced sweeping reforms in administrative, economic and financial issues along with efforts to combat corruption. The success of these reforms remains to be seen. However, if successful, they will empower Abadi against his political opponents as well.

Iraq has been under the spotlight of the international media for many decades. This trend continues today and we can easily argue that journalists, academics, researchers and diplomats will keep talking about Iraq in the near future for various reasons. In the past, the policies of Saddam Hussein, oil, the Kurdish issue and war with Iran were among the reasons why Iraq was covered in the international media. Today, the interest in Iraq is mainly driven by ISIS. Although ISIS is the main reason for the current interest towards this country, Iraq faces daunting challenges that were recently manifested by the decision of the Prime Minister Abadi to dismiss the Deputy Presidents and Deputy Prime Ministers and introduce administrative and economic reforms.

After the US invasion of the country, the expected stability did not reach Iraq and with the withdrawal of the US forces in 2011 another wave of turmoil engulfed Iraq’s cities. The turmoil showed the remarkable fragility of the Iraqi security and political structures. Adding to these difficulties, economic and social problems also led many people to question the future of the country within the current geographical and political limitations. Continuing protests in different parts of the country are symptoms of Iraq’s deep security, political, economic and social challenges.

In terms of security challenges, the emergence of ISIS on the back of Sunni discontent led to a condition where the Iraqi central authority lost control of 1/3 of the country. The quick fall of Mosul to ISIS and subsequent failures up to the present day in the fight against ISIS made the weak organization of the army, factionalism and loyalty problems obvious. More than one year after the fall of Mosul, bombings by an international coalition and efforts to train and equip the Iraqi army did not reach the level where there is confidence in defeating ISIS. Filling the gaps in the army with several militia groups may seem an answer in the short term to counter the security threat, but this will diminish trust in state institutions and will increase the fragmentation of the country in the long term.

In terms of political challenges, we witnessed a fragmented picture after the last general elections. The opposition to former Prime Minister Maliki prevented him from forming a government and Abadi became the new Prime Minister of Iraq. The failure of former Iraqi governments in providing security and basic services increased expectations from the Abadi government. In the post-2003 period, Iraqi political parties were incapable of creating programs to answer the huge problems of the country. These parties were weak in institutional structure and instead of pursuing policies based on long term planning to solve problems, they resorted to the easy option: pursuing ethnic or sectarian policies. The daunting problems left over from years of oppression, wars, sanctions and lack of political participation requires a long-term effort. However, instead, parties and political figures have opted for short term gains using ethnic and sectarian cleavages for political purposes.

Iraq urgently requires institutions to answer the demands of the population and create trust among communities. Today’s Iraq lacks loyalty to the nation and needs unifying ideas for the continuation of its political existence. Without a common sense of belonging, all efforts to surmount the challenges of Iraq will fail.

Iraq’s security and political challenges harm the country’s economic prospects. As a country heavily reliant on oil exports, the effect of the decline in oil prices and the increased expenses of fighting ISIS place an extra burden on the Iraqi government. The export figures show record highs with 3.2 million barrels per day. This is a very welcome development given the needs of the country, however, the decline in oil prices and spending nearly 20% of the budget on defense leaves little money for badly needed infrastructural investments. As a result of the budgetary difficulties, some infrastructural programs are postponed and salaries of high ranking officials cut.

Rampant corruption, a lack of security and very basic services like electricity, discrimination in employment opportunities, a lack of any other significant employer other than the state and serious unemployment levels are the most important reasons for the economic discontent which have led to widespread protests in several cities in the last couple of months. Delays in securing order in the country have prevented long term economic planning, and forecasts for the price of oil given the global oversupply darken economic prospects in the short term. The differences between the Baghdad and Arbil governments in terms of budgetary issues and selling of oil are not settled fully: given other challenges, both parties have postponed the solution of these issues to the future.

The social fabric of Iraqi society or lack thereof

Another important challenge for Iraq is related to the social fabric of Iraqi society. Divisions along ethnic and sectarian lines heightened after 2003. The repressed groups from the Baath era – Shiite Arabs and Kurds – welcomed the changes after 2003, but Sunni Arabs felt marginalized and this contributed to providing fertile ground for ISIS. Kurds advanced in their dreams of independence whereas Shiite Arabs and their political parties started to dominate the political system. This created an atmosphere where Sunni Arabs complained about systemic discrimination in state employment and increased unemployment for their people, as there are limited employers other than the state.

Under these conditions where the state fails to provide security, equal employment opportunities and a prospect for the future of the country, we have seen a weakening of the bonds among the citizens of Iraq. Disagreement among different demographics about the type of government, budgetary issues, representation at state institutions, and distribution of economic benefits has led to a decline in trust in the state among citizens.  When the central authority fails to meet the criteria for a functioning state, we see sub-state actors increasingly taking on state functions. In Iraq, unfortunately, we see every sign of this trend, be it in the realm of security or the economy. Increasingly people feel attached to their ethnic and sectarian identities and show allegiance to sub-state groups for their physical and economic survival.

 

The Need for Reform

The aforementioned challenges are making life more or less intolerable for Iraqis. Electricity cuts during hot summer days and the absence or poor quality of services along with rumors of corruption led to the emergence of widespread protests in several Iraqi cities. Besides these protests, the call of Shiite religious leader Sistani to Prime Minister Abadi “to respond to the demands of people” and “be courageous” helped Abadi declare a program aiming to end corruption, abolishing some political portfolios and replacing partisan and sectarian employment practices with meritocratic employment.

When we look into the details of the reform agenda, the program includes administrative reform, financial reform, economic reform, improvement of services and combating corruption. In terms of administrative reform, the most remarkable points are the cancellation of the posts of Deputy Presidents and Deputy Prime Ministers, decreasing the number of security personnel for state officials and sending them to the Ministry of Defense to provide security for the citizens, and authorizing the Prime Minister to dismiss governors in cases of poor performance. If these points are fully implemented, some will not be implemented under current conditions, than this represents a big step towards the rationalization of the bureaucracy and the introduction of merit-based appointments.

In terms of financial reform, there are clauses about tax evasion and decreasing the upper limit of pensions for state officials. There are several complaints about income tax and the taxation of higher officials. Attempts to work with international companies for professional guidance may contribute to the success of these financial reform initiatives.

In terms of economic reforms, there are clauses to generate economic growth via private enterprises and the cancellation of all former government contracts for inspection, except defense contracts. This proposal is also in line with the economic hardship that the country is facing and attempts to diversify economic activity away from oil.

The program also includes several clauses for the improvement of services and fighting corruption, the main reasons behind the protests. According to the program, there is a stress on the provision of electricity and the constant monitoring of the provision of other services in order to detect any decline quickly. In terms of eliminating corruption, the Anti-Corruption Council will be set up and a campaign entitled “where did you get this?” will be launched along with the opening of cases of past and current corruption by a supreme committee of expert judges.

It can be easily said that Prime Minister has benefited from the protests to eliminate his political rivals, but he also used this opportunity to eliminate arguments about his failure in meeting the expectations of the people nearly one year after forming a government. Abadi’s political opponents expected that these protests will lead to a change and a new Prime Minister. Being aware of this danger, Abadi aimed to use the current atmosphere as much as possible to curtail the powers of his opponents.

Although the reform package was accepted unanimously in parliament, some MPs later started to voice their concerns, arguing that there was a need for more discussion and Abadi was seizing the momentum to advance his own agenda. This shows that, there will be hurdles on the way in implementing some reforms, especially in relation to corruption and employment questions. The support for the Prime Minister for its reform program is weakening and belief within the society for the success of the proposed measures in declining.

The success or failure of this program remains to be seen; however, the future of Iraq requires political, economic and social restructuring along with a comprehensive reform of the defense forces. Given the past experiences and conditions on the ground, we shall not expect miracles, however, Abadi’s political career will be seriously affected by the success or failure of these reforms. Replacing the Maliki government more than a year ago, the Abadi government represented a new hope for Iraq amid increasing security challenges posed by ISIS.  There were some criticisms towards him in providing answers to the challenges of Iraq, since there was not much progress against the ISIS threat or in terms of the economic conditions of the country. With this reform package, he may eliminate some of his political opponents yet at the same time answer some of the challenges of Iraq. He has a tough job ahead of him and this package may provide him some credit.

1 Alex Lawler, “Iraq’s oil exports hit records high so far in June”, Reuters,  17 June 2015, http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/06/17/us-iraq-oil-idUSKBN0OX2D920150617

“Full text of Prime Minister Abadi’s proposed reform agenda”, 1001 Iraqi Thoughts, 10 August 2015,  http://1001iraqithoughts.com/2015/08/10/full-text-of-prime-minister-abadis-proposed-reform-agenda/   

3 Paul D. Shinkman, “Where America’s Democracy Went to Die”, U.S. News, 14 August 2015,  http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2015/08/14/abadis-reforms-and-the-death-of-us-imposed-democracy-in-iraq

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