Among the many challenges to establishing democracy and the rule of law, promoting economic and human development, and abolishing terrorist safe havens in Iraq, corruption ranks among the highest.  According to Transparency International, Iraq ranked as the third worst country in the world for corruption in 2006, 2007, and 2008—and the fourth worst in 2009.  The World Bank also placed Iraq at the bottom of the list.

Political corruption and abuse of power stem from several structural deficiencies.  To secure the passage of Iraq’s constitution and bring the opposition to the table, U.S. mediators encouraged Iraqis to commit two blunders.  First, Iraqis agreed to pass a number of substantial changes to the constitution within a short period after its ratification, undermining the authority of the constitution and making it essentially a provisional document.  Second, Iraqis abandoned the constitution following the very first election in favor of forming a “national unity government,” a euphemism for a quota system of power-sharing to appease the Sunni Arabs who opposed the political process. Accordingly, government ministries were farmed out to various parties without any significant oversight over the way the ministers conducted their daily business. Third, it is extremely difficult to prosecute Iraqi officials for corruption due to a provision of law that effectively gives ministries a veto over investigations.

The result has been abysmal performance in every ministry.  Generally, corrupt ministers were protected by their respective parties in the parliament and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki looked the other way.  Even when ministers’ corruption was too significant to ignore, there were no prosecutions.  After astounding revelations about the corruption of former Minister of Trade Abd al-Falah al-Sudani, al-Maliki still opted to protect al-Sudani (a member of Maliki’s party), who was briefly arrested, but eventually released and allowed to leave Iraq for London.

Similarly, former Minister of Culture Asad al-Hashemi faced few consequences after using his ministry as a torture house for opponents and a safe haven for religious extremists.  On June 26, 2007, he was accused of plotting a series of assassinations prior to and during his tenure in office.  He reportedly evaded arrest by hiding out in the home of a very senior Iraqi leader—allegedly Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi—in the Green Zone.  Having vanished in broad daylight, the death sentence he received became obsolete.

The amounts of bribes, kick-backs, and embezzlements are commensurate with the level of the given official. They start with $100 at the lower levels of government employees and rise to the millions of U.S. dollars when ministers and deputy ministers are involved.  In the case of former Iraqi Trade Minister al-Sudani, one contract between his ministry and an export company owned by his son and two brothers reportedly involved the import of expired tea at the cost of $50 million, when the shipment was valued at $20 million.

Beyond the abuse of the public trust and waste of resources, corruption also can have dangerous consequences. For example, Iraqi officials continue to intercede on behalf of jailed terrorists for ideological reasons, political purposes, and sometimes for substantial monetary rewards.  In one incident in October 2009, for example, Iraqi Security Forces apprehended a lawyer in Mosul for allegedly bribing officials to release jailed Islamic State of Iraq terrorists and destroy official records legitimizing such arrests. Money stolen or extorted from local companies and individuals ends up being used to bribe officials in order to secure the release of terrorists and fund terrorist activities.

Another possible example of consequences from corruption that directly harmed Iraqis was the cholera epidemic that broke out in several locations in 2008. The outbreak was reportedly due to a failure to sterilize the local drinking water because Iraqi officials were bribed to buy chlorine from Iran that was long past its expiration date. The councilman involved in the chlorine contract, a member of the Hilla City Council, was released after a short arrest, thanks to his connection with the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a powerful pro-Iran party. 

Finally, the excessive compensation members of parliament have allocated to themselves can be considered an abuse of power, though not officially corruption.  To begin with, each MP costs the Iraqi treasury $30,000 per month, including his/her $9,000 salary and security detail (30 bodyguards), not to mention a pension package of $7,200 per month for ten years after leaving the job.  Just two months before the end of their present term, the MPs continued to accumulate new benefits; they recently voted to convert into a grant the $60,000 loan each MP had received to purchase a car.  Also, the MPs voted to give themselves and their families diplomatic passports valid for ten years, as well as a piece of real estate in a place of the member’s choosing. The perks package was passed unanimously in October 2009, overriding two presidential vetoes.

Iraqis who welcomed change in their country are rapidly falling victim to disillusionment and political apathy, due partly to rampant corruption. As Iraqi intellectual Iyad Muhsin recently wrote, “What kind of a country is this, where ministers, parliamentarians, clergymen, tribal chiefs, doctors, and teachers steal from the public?” Corruption is an issue that the new parliamentarians to be elected March 7, and the government to be formed afterward, need to address head on if they hope to gain the trust of the Iraqi people.  They can start with reevaluating their exaggerated expenses, along with those of the other branches of government, and then exercise aggressive oversight over the government’s performance in curbing corruption wherever it might exist.

Abbas Kadhim is Assistant Professor of National Security Affairs, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California.