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Iraqis hail anticorruption reforms, but legal and political hurdles remain

Passage of the political reforms aimed at reducing corruption, following a wave of public protests, produced euphoria over 'a new chapter for a new Iraq.'

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    Demonstrators chant in support of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi during a demonstration at Tahrir Square in Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, Aug. 9, 2015.
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    Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi addresses the media during the International Youth Day celebration in Baghdad, Iraq, Aug. 12. Iraq's parliament on Tuesday unanimously approved an ambitious reform plan that would cut spending and eliminate senior posts, including the three largely symbolic vice presidencies, following mass protests against corruption and poor services.
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Iraq’s parliament has passed the most sweeping political reforms in the country’s post-Saddam history, prompting euphoria over the ability of peaceful public protests to bring about meaningful change.

However many Iraqis question whether the key goals of slashing corruption and ending sectarian quotas can actually be implemented, pointing to manpower issues and lingering sectarian tensions.

“It’s amazing what happened,” Sunni lawmaker Jaber al-Jabri says by phone from Baghdad, in between accepting congratulations from well-wishers. “Every member of parliament raised their hands for this. I think it’s a new chapter for a new Iraq.”

In the midst of a sweltering summer, public protests in Baghdad, Basra, and other cities over corruption and a lack of services have provided Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi a mandate to cut across sectarian and political lines and push through the drastic changes.

Demands for change by Iraq’s most revered Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, sealed the deal, allowing quick cabinet approval and an unprecedented unanimous vote Tuesday in Iraq’s fractious parliament.

The reforms would eliminate multiple positions of vice president and deputy prime minister traditionally negotiated between Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds as well as other senior posts for political appointees. Up to a dozen government ministries would also be cut.

Prime Minister Abadi’s plan also includes measures such as cutting allowances for security forces and reopening corruption cases against government officials. In a country where millions of people suffer through 120-degree temperatures without electricity, while government officials are normally glimpsed only through the tinted windows of security convoys, the measures are hugely popular.

“I think it’s an important moment in Iraq’s history,” says Sajad Jiyad, senior researcher at the al-Bayan public policy center in Baghdad. “I don’t think we’ve had a politician as popular in Iraq or as powerful," he says, referring to Abadi. "And I don’t think we’ve had a coalition before of liberals, conservatives, secularists, and religious authorities.”

Under the previous prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, public protests in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square and in the Sunni cities of Fallujah and Ramadi were crushed by politicized security forces. Mr. Maliki, who is from Abadi’s own Shiite Dawa party, is one of three vice presidents who stand to lose their jobs. The reforms would also give Abadi the power to fire provincial governors seen as corrupt or inept.

At protests this time, an Iraqi flag

This summer’s demonstrations built on more than a year of protests by poor families from the south demanding the government tell them what happened to their sons, who were believed to be massacred by the Islamic State (IS) while in military service. And they were different from the previous public shows of discontent, says Mr. Jiyad. 

“It was quite a positive mood – you had young, old, a lot of women, a lot of different people,” he says. “Even Hashid (the largely Shiite paramilitary) leaders were out there. Police were handing out water and taking pictures with the protesters.”

Jiyad says Sistani’s message on Friday urging the government to fight corruption “with an iron fist” energized the protest movement, making it difficult for the cabinet and parliament to deny the demands.

“For the Sunni population, this is the first time in the demonstrations [that] when you go to Tahrir Square you see only one flag – the Iraqi flag,” says Mr. Jabri. “This was not a Sunni demonstration or a Shiite demonstration – all parts of society participated. They are frustrated with the corruption in Iraq, the bad services, and the sectarian division.”

The reclusive Sistani’s pronouncements have swayed the course of Iraq’s postwar history. He is considered independent from Iran. Iraqi political analysts say Iran is believed to be concerned that the proposed reforms could set up a more broadly-based secular political structure in the now Shiite-dominated government.

Bloated ministries

Anger over corruption has been building since IS took over large parts of Iraq last year amid the collapse and retreat of Iraqi security forces. With US backing, Iraq is now trying to reconstitute an army riddled with commanders at all levels who either paid for their position or were political appointees. The commanders are believed to have routinely diverted funds from food and ammunition.

The postwar political system, set up under the direction of occupying US authorities, handed control of specific government ministries to Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds. Those ministries have now become bloated with unqualified employees who obtain their jobs through bribes or political favors. Many Iraqis say they have to pay bribes to get basic government services. 

But Iraq’s deep-rooted problems, combined with a financial crisis caused by low oil prices and the cost of fighting IS, will be difficult to solve. 

“Their problem is now that people have very high expectations,” says Saad Eskander, a Baghdad-based political scientist and a former director at the Ministry of Culture. 

“The government doesn’t have qualified people to implement these important reforms,” he says. “They don’t have the mechanism, they don’t have the right people and the issue related to corruption includes thousand of officials in lower, middle and top levels. I don’t know how they will manage to do that.”

Sectarian concerns linger

And despite the reforms' unanimous approval in cabinet and in parliament, serious roadblocks remain in putting together a broken country, including the increasing influence of Iranian-backed Shiite paramilitary organizations now nominally under command of the Iraqi government. These forces have taken a prominent role fighting against IS, raising fears among Sunnis that they will be unable to return to towns and cities retaken by the largely Shiite forces.

Jabri says Sunni leaders are counting on passage of a long-delayed law creating a national guard. Those forces would be under the control of provincial leaders and under the command of the Defense Ministry rather the Interior Ministry, which is headed by a commander of the Iranian-backed Badr Organization.

And while Maliki has welcomed the reforms, two other vice-presidents have called abolishing their positions and expanding the powers of the prime minister illegal. Implementing those changes, say analysts and politicians, would require amendments to Iraq’s constitution.

The Kurds are also likely to fight any weakening of their role in the central government, while some of Abadi’s Shiite allies are also opposed. 

“If al-Abadi wants to turn himself into a nationalist figure, he has to disassociate himself with the Dawa party,” Mr. Eskander says. “Is he going to rise above party affiliation or sectarian identity? Can he do that? He needs to lead a populist movement.”

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