Can Iraq’s New Reform Plan Succeed?

In the wake of a recent heatwave and rolling electricity blackouts, numerous protesters have taken to the streets in Iraq to protest corruption and advocate for a more accountable government.

Responding to the protests, Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, and his staff have proposed a series of reforms that intend to increase accountability, trim bloated budgets, and tackle corruption.

There is a need for governmental reform in Iraq. According to the Corruption Perceptions Index 2014 by Transparency International, Iraq has the fifth highest perception of corruption in the world. Freedom House, in its Freedom in the World 2015 report, has assigned Iraq the status of ‘not free’ with very low ratings in freedom, political rights, and civil liberties.

Jamal al-Dhari, a leading Sunni tribal leader and the president of Peace Ambassadors for Iraq (PAFI), has stated, “The extreme level of corruption in the government has even rendered it unable to provide basic public services. Iraqis have been without reliable electrical coverage during the recent, brutally-hot heat wave that the country has been experiencing. Moreover, Iraq will be unable to undertake broad based, sustainable economic development until the government initiates a serious anti-corruption drive.â€

Despite enthusiasm and necessity for reform, there are a number of factors that need to be addressed to determine the overall consequences of the current reform proposals and, taking them into account, lay the foundation for truly effective policies.

Elimination of the Position of Vice President

Abadi has proposed eliminating Iraq’s three vice presidencies. Many believe that the measure will improve the accountability of the country’s government by reducing the influence of controversial figures such as Nouri al-Maliki, who many have blamed for increasing the sectarian nature of governance and tolerating inefficiency and corruption.

Not only does the proposed reform present numerous constitutional and legalistic concerns, but also, Abadi is still a member of the Islamic Dawa Party of which Maliki is the general secretary and over which Iran exercises great and enduring influence. Therefore, the extent to which Abadi can forge more effective governance through eliminating the vice presidencies may be more limited than many recent appraisals have indicated.

Consolidation of Government

As part of his package of reform measures, Abadi has moved to consolidate various government bodies and reduce their staff. At the highest levels of government, Abadi has reduced the number of his cabinet officers and the ministries that they represent by one third, from 33 to 22.

Rather than attempting to improve governance, Abadi could be eliminating the positions of Maliki and other prominent officials to consolidate his own political power in a way that does not necessarily improve either the effectiveness, transparency, or inclusiveness of Iraq’s political system.

As the Iraqi government proceeds with this measure, it must be sure to maintain those with the necessary experience to keep the government running. If not and the reforms actually fail to change the pattern of inefficient governance, the plan would consolidate power in fewer hands and make the situation worse than before.

One of the more problematic provisions that Abadi has proposed is the redirectionof public funds from municipal governments to non-governmental militias. Iraq needs to devote its resources to strengthening its national army and making it a more inclusive force. Not only does strengthening the militias make the task of national reconciliation all the more difficult, but also it increases the influence of Iran over Iraq’s sovereign affairs and destiny.

The Mosul Report

The Iraqi parliament has recently approved a report that investigated the factors that led to the fall of the city of Mosul, one of Iraq’s largest cities, to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL – alternatively known as ISIS, or IS) during 2014. One of the report’s most publicized findings is that Maliki and other senior officials were substantially responsible for the fall of the city and, as such, warrant a formal investigation by oversight bodies.

Since the Iraqi parliament has approved the report, the country’s judicial branch will determine whether Maliki and the others cited in the report should face criminal prosecution. Abadi has also referred soldiers that abandoned their posts in Ramadi to a court martial.

Some observers hope that trials of this sort will help to increase accountability for Iraq’s top officials and discourage future leaders from committing the same errors in their current fight against ISIL. However, given the power of the individuals within the government and the numerous reports of corruption present within the Iraqi judiciary, it is uncertain whether the groups will actually face prosecution.

Moving Forward

Iraqis need a positive future to fight for: a future with an inclusive government, a future in which the country’s many communities can learn to live in peace, and a future with an economy that can support all Iraqis. Government reform is integral in order for this to happen.

However, some of the proposed reforms may have little effect in solving the country’s issues or actually bring Iraq further from accomplishing its goals by giving the national government increased power without sufficient safeguards. The over centralization of power in the national government during Maliki’s administration is exactly what contributed to many of the problems that Iraq is currently facing.

The proposed reform plan needs careful, nuanced implementation and must take into account the possible obstacles and hurdles to succeed.

The Iraqi people are depending on it.

* This piece also appears on International Policy Digest.

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