Corruption and Sectarianism Sinking PM Hopefuls in Iraq

IraqProtests2, unknown author,

When Iraqi president Barham Salih appointed Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi prime minister at the start of February, he hoped to calm months of street protests that have swept Iraq. The announcement had the opposite effect, with protesters immediately rejecting Allawi as a representative of the old order they are fighting to overthrow.

The old order decided it did not want Allawi either. The prime minister-designate abandoned his attempt to form “an independent government without any party candidates for the first time in decades” on March 1st, after it became clear most of Iraq’s sectarian political class did not support replacing their allotments of cabinet positions with an independent, technocratic government.

Salih has now put forward a second, ostensibly pro-American candidate in Najaf’s former governor Adnan al-Zurfi, but it is far from clear his attempt to govern will prove more successful than his predecessor’s.


A deeply flawed messenger

What went wrong for Allawi? From the start, his assertions of independence were belied by the behind-the-scenes machinations driving his nomination. Backed by the pro-Iranian Fatah Alliance and initially by Shi’a clerical firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr, Allawi was no reformer but instead a caretaker meant to safeguard these factions’ interests.

This helps explain why the country’s indefatigable protest movement never came around to his candidacy. While Allawi professed his support for the protests, his two past stints as communications minister under former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, his family ties to former premier Iyad Allawi, and the fact he primarily resided in the UK made him an exceedingly flawed messenger for reform, even setting aside the politics behind his nomination.

Sadly, even with a different candidate, the realities of politics in Iraq make it highly unlikely real change is in the offing unless pressure from below can finally force a break with the ethnic and sectarian horse-trading that has defined Iraqi politics since 2003.


A new generation of Iraqis demands a fresh start

Iraq is at a critical juncture. Hobbled by corruption, factionalism, and foreign influence, Iraq’s Shi’a, Sunni, and Kurdish elites have proven unable to foster stability. As a result, a grassroots uprising dubbed the “October Revolution” has taken over the streets of major Iraqi cities including Baghdad, Basra, and Karbala to protest corruption, economic crisis, failing social services, and pervasive Iranian influence over Iraq’s affairs.

Young Iraqis are demanding the complete replacement of the political class, with a government that not only represents the country’s divisions but is accountable to the people themselves. They forced Iraq’s previous prime minister, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, to resign in December, but at a heavy price; over 600 Iraqi civilians have been killed and tens of thousands injured in clashes with state security forces and militia groups.

That death toll has hardened attitudes and strengthened demands for a new slate of leaders. In Allawi, President Barham Salih instead presented them with a throwback from one of the most notorious periods of postwar Iraqi governance. From 2006-2007 and again from 2010-2012, Allawi helmed the Ministry of Communications (MOC) under Maliki, an era remembered for arbitrary de-Ba’athification policies, rampant corruption, and systematic abuses and mass arrests which helped set the stage for ISIS’s partial takeover of Iraq.


Communications corruption under Allawi’s watch

Allawi presented his time in Maliki’s government as a doomed battle against venal corruption, but even his successes have had significant repercussions for Iraq to this day. Under his tenure, for example, Iraq’s telecommunications sector saw a major round of foreign investment from France’s Orange and Kuwait’s Agility into local telecoms operator Korek. From 2011, the two companies invested over $800 million in Korek and intended to ultimately secure a majority stake in the firm.

Instead, in 2014, their investment was declared invalid by Iraq’s Communication and Media Commission (CMC) and the foreign investors’ shares in Korek reverted back to Sirwan Barzani, one of Korek’s founders and one of the most powerful businessmen in Iraq. That decision has resulted in an international legal battle and seriously undermined Iraq’s ability to attract foreign investment. Orange and Agility have filed lawsuits against Barzani and his business associates, including Lebanese businessman and Korek director Raymond Rahmeh, alleging they misused company funds and bribed CMC officials in order to seize the foreign investors’ shares and drive them out of the country.

As Minister of Communications, Allawi oversaw the CMC, which recently made headlines by suspending the al-Hurra television network for airing an investigative piece on corruption in state-run religious endowments. While Allawi claims to have exercised a zero-tolerance policy towards corruption, revelations CMC officials may themselves have taken homes in London as bribes to expropriate Korek’s investors shortly after his resignation offer a tangible example of his failure to change the culture of corruption within his own ministry.


Premier in Baghdad, but powerless in Kurdistan

The Korek episode also demonstrates the power individuals like Sirwan Barzani wield over Iraq’s institutions. Barzani is not just a businessman but also a commander of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces. He is a member of Iraqi Kurdistan’s powerful Barzani clan and its Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which controls both the presidency and premiership of the autonomous region from the regional capital in Irbil. That autonomy is the fruit of decades of armed struggle with successive governments in Baghdad.

While tensions with the central government over 2017’s abortive referendum on secession led to clashes and the Peshmerga’s withdrawal from disputed territories like the city of Kirkuk, managing Kurdish aspirations for independence has forced Iraq’s prime ministers to strike a delicate balance. That has left Iraq’s central government with little say over governance issues in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Kurdish parties in Iraq, conversely, have considerable influence over the national government, which they brought to bear over Allawi’s appointment. Talks between Kurdish representatives and Allawi broke down over demands Irbil abandon their traditional allocation of seats in the cabinet. The Kurds publicly criticized the would-be premier who “has not shown any respect for the political and legal standing of the Kurdistan Region.”

Kurdistan’s autonomy also helps explain why anti-corruption protests have not spread north. Between 2015 and 2018, Kurdish protests over corruption, governance, and wage issues were met with police crackdowns. Now, however, some Kurds fear the demands for constitutional changes in Baghdad could rob of them of their status under Iraq’s current system. Indeed, KDP president Masoud Barzani’s reaction to Allawi’s failure placed considerable emphasis on the unity of Kurdistan’s fractious political elite in rejecting his candidacy, pointing to a shared concern over a common threat.

And yet, Iraq may never find stability while the current system endures. Iraqi protesters have made clear they are done with simply surviving and are instead seeking a new order. They have proven they are willing to brave months of state-sanctioned violence in pursuit of change. For them, neither Mohammed Allawi nor Adnan al-Zurfi represent that change.

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