At the end of September 2011, the International Crisis Group released its latest report on Iraq entitled “Failing Oversight Iraq’s Unchecked Government.” The organization focused upon the failure of the Iraqi government to adequately regulate itself, and protect against corruption. It went through the five organizations responsible for checking the government, namely the Integrity Commission, the Board of Supreme Audit, the inspector generals, the parliament, and the courts, and found that not one was willing or able to do the job. This has allowed the country’s political parties and officials to steal millions, perhaps billions of dollars from a country rich in resources, but struggling to emerge from years of sanctions and wars.
Iraq has experienced massive corruption since 2003. Transparency International, a German based group that surveys graft and fraud around the world has ranked Iraq one of the top five most corrupt countries since 2006. In 2010 for example, Iraq was number four on their Corruption Index, behind only Somalia, Myanmar, and Afghanistan. Iraq has in fact, slipped farther down the index since it received its sovereignty back from the United States in 2005, going from #20 in 2003 to #22 in 2005, and then #3 in 2006. The International Crisis Group believes this stems from the massive amount of money that has flowed through the country since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, which not only overwhelmed the Iraqi government, but the United States as well, which could not adequately manage its own reconstruction funds. The lack of security from 2003-2008 also hampered any civilian agency whether Iraqi or American from adequately managing these funds, plus gangs, militias, and insurgents were all trying to siphon off money for their own nefarious ends as well. All together, that meant there was no adequate oversight in Iraq for five years, leaving officials to do whatever they wanted. That created a corrupt culture that remains in effect to this day. The end of the sectarian civil war and the crippling of militant groups have not improved the situation either. Iraq’s new political class has grown a taste for fraud and theft, and the money it brings, so they have no desire to end it.
The lack of commitment from the top is seen in the performance of Iraq’s anti-corruption agencies. The Integrity Commission and the Board of Supreme Audit are two examples. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) created the former in 2004, while the latter is a far older organization dating back to 1927. The Board’s job is to oversee the government’s finances. Before 2003, it had access to Baghdad’s accounts, and could refer any suspicious cases directly to the courts. Many said it worked well during the Baath era because of the fear officials had over being found trying to steal money from Saddam. In May 2003, the CPA disbanded all Baathist organizations, which included the Board. Its head went to the CPA to explain its role, successfully convincing the Americans to re-instate it in September. In April 2004, however, the CPA issued new rules for the Board that severely limited its authority. From then on, the Board had to refer cases to the inspector generals of any suspected ministry or to the Integrity Commission instead of the courts. It also ended its direct access to official records. Instead, the Board had to ask the inspector generals for information about their ministries. This increased the bureaucratic barriers between the Board and its work. The result is that today, the Board rarely conducts any criminal investigations. The U.S. intended for the Integrity Commission to become the major anti-corruption agency in the new Iraq. The CPA in fact, made its authority unclear, which undermined its work for its first four years of existence. During that time, the Commission was under the influence of the parties, and was as corrupt as the rest of the government. Ineffective staff for example, would often appeal to their parties for protection to keep their jobs. The first Commission head, Judge Radhi Hamza Radhi, also hired corrupt officials. The organization only began to improve its work when Judge Rahim al-Ogaili took over in 2008. He tried to clean up the Commission, getting rid of bad members, and step up the number of investigations conducted. Even so, the Commission was hampered by CPA regulations like the Board of Supreme Audit. For instance, it has to rely upon the inspector general to refer many cases to it, even though they are largely ineffective organizations, then investigate them, and then send them to court if they find anything substantial. Again, the Americans created unnecessary regulations for the Commission to prosecute corruption cases. Top politicians have also routinely stopped its work. This recently led to the resignation of Judge Ogaili.
The third group of regulators is the inspector generals (IGs). In 2004, the CPA created an inspector general in each ministry. Like the other anti-corruption groups, the inspector generals are severely limited in what they can do. First, they have to get permission from their ministers to send any corruption cases to the Integrity Commission. The inspectors from different offices can’t work with each other. The CPA did create a commission that meets once a month to try to coordinate the work of the inspectors, but it has no authority, so its decisions are not binding. Third, the IGs are open to political influence. In 2008, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki fired seven inspector generals from the ministries of Water, Culture, Trade, and Youth and Sport, along with the Central Bank of Iraq, the Sunni Endowment, and the Christian Endowment. It was widely believed that the premier did this to stop their work. Ministers can also remove inspectors. Finally, they have no guidelines on how to carry out their work. Again, the rules created by the Americans, along with the interference by top Iraqi officials have made the inspector generals ineffective. If a minister doesn’t approve of an investigation, he can stop it, and the inspectors can only stay in office at the behest of their superiors and the premier. They thus know their limitations, and will only go so far lest they upset their bosses.
The fourth body that is supposed to oversee the government is parliament. The 2005 Constitution gave the legislature brand new powers. The problem is that the parliament has always been sectarian, and is run by the parties that make up the government. All of the top positions are divvied up along ethnosectarian and party lines. That has meant that there is no urge amongst lawmakers to investigate or regulate the government because the same groups run it. Since 2006 for instance, parliament’s committees have hardly ever questioned any government officials. If one ever does want to push an issue the parties or the speaker and his deputies can easily stop it.
The final element that is supposed to check the government’s work is the judiciary. It is supposed to be independent, and under the authority of the Higher Judicial Council. Most of the judges in Iraq are from the Saddam era. That history has made them pliant to whoever is in office. That led them to issuing several decisions highly favoring Maliki in the last two years. In 2010 it reversed a decision to postpone the dismissal of 500 candidates in the 2010 election a day after Maliki met with the Chief Justice of the country Medhat Mahmoud. In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that the country’s independent commissions were under the executive, even though the Constitution says they should be under the jurisdiction of the parliament. Like the anti-corruption agencies and the parliament, the judges have been negligent in their oversight duties, and have often given in to the whims of the premier.
Iraq’s government has not been able to regulate itself for two reasons. First, the Americans created too cumbersome of a process to investigate corruption. Second, Iraq’s parties and prime minister have no interest in seriously taking on the issue. That means while the number of corruption cases has increased in the last few years, they have no real impact, because those prosecuted are all low level officials. Until there is the political will to clean up the government and end the massive theft that takes place each year, graft and fraud will not end. Until then, public confidence in the authorities will remain low, and the development of the country will be hindered by institutionalized corruption.
Glanz, James and Mohammed, Riyadh, “Premier of Iraq Is Quietly Firing Fraud Monitors,” New York Times, 11/18/08
International Crisis Group, “Failing Oversight Iraq’s Unchecked Government,” 9/26/11
Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, “Hard Lessons,” 1/22/09
Transparency International, “Corruption Perceptions Index 2010,” 10/26/10