Protests in Focus: In Iraq, corruption is the biggest driver of instability and now protests

by Athir Hatem   December 18, 2019

Years after toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein in April 2003, corruption remains one of the top concerns of Iraqi citizens. It has, thus, become a tradition for Iraqi governments to champion a resolve for ridding the country of this endemic. The previous and current governments are no exception. They recently announced their intention to launch a crosscutting anti-corruption campaign, promising an ultimate “triumph over corruption as Iraq did with Daesh (ISIS).”

According to a report by the Middle East Research Institute: “While laudable, such efforts will prove substantially difficult and would require a national program that upsets how major aspects of Iraqi politics have been practiced since 2003.”

Corruption and sectarian violence

In 2006, a bomb attack on an important Shia shrine in Samarra unleashed a wave of sectarian violence, which killed thousands of people and lasted until 2010.

During this period of high sectarian violence, corruption in Iraq largely worsened, as measured in a deteriorating score on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index and remained relatively poor throughout this period.

The Corruption Perceptions Index ranks countries and territories based on how corrupt their public sector is perceived to be. A country or territory’s score indicates the perceived level of public sector corruption on a scale of 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean).

The index measures perceived public sector corruption on a scale of 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean).

Perceived corruption was also high (measured in a low number on the scale) when ISIS emerged. What we can draw from this and the above correlation is that corruption often proceeds or coincides with other negative consequences, in this case violence and extremism.

Corruption and the rise of ISIS in Iraq

As seen in the chart above, ISIS emerged in a time when perceived corruption in Iraq was high, measured again by a low score on the Corruption Perceptions Index.

Corruption in Iraqi army recruitment and promotions, the existence of ghost soldiers, and theft of weapons and supplies rendered the army — superior on paper — ill-armed, under-manned, and ultimately unable to halt the rise of ISIS. To stop the jihadi fighters, international troops had to return to Iraq a couple of years after a previous training mission had been concluded.

Now that ISIS is defeated, at least in military terms, acting forcefully against corruption is instrumental to achieving effective and efficient government. When there is corruption, the authority and credibility of the state and democratic institutions are at serious risk.

Acting to root out corruption is also important to maintaining security and stability in a post-ISIS Iraq. Corruption and bad governance were root causes not only underpinning the sudden collapse of security forces in Mosul and other Iraqi cities, but also underlying why citizens were so vulnerable to recruitment once ISIS declared its caliphates in the first place.

Corruption and the economy

Beyond the rise of sectarian violence and ISIS, statistics also show a correlation between Iraq’s gross domestic product and corruption. On average, when corruption lessens, as seen in a higher Corruptions Perception Index score, the gross domestic product climbs and the economy improves. In years that corruption worsens, evidenced in a lower Corruption Perception Index score, the gross domestic product falls.

Corruption has direct consequences on economic factors in the country and the health of the economy.

Protesters demand an end to rampant corruption

Given the widespread implications of corruption—a sluggish economy and hence high unemployment, an environment that fosters violence and susceptibility to ISIS—it’s no wonder that Iraqi citizens are speaking out against corruption,

On Oct. 1, 2019, hundreds of thousands took to the streets to call for an end to rampant corruption and chronic unemployment, which have since escalated into calls for a complete overhaul of the political system. Protesters have also taken aim at Iran’s influence, with Iraq’s top cleric warning foreign powers from interfering in protests.

Protests in Baghdad. Photo by Ali Dab Dab.

These demands have been met with a government crackdown resulting in hundreds of people dead and thousands injured.

But violence is certainly not the way to address these challenges or answer protesters demands. If Iraq wants to get at the root of many of its challenges without devolving into more violence or repression, it must tackle corruption head on. The costs in terms of jobs, lives and stability is too great not to.

Athir Hatem is a General Manager for Partners Iraq. Learn more here: Follow Partners Iraq on Facebook here: