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Three Tests for the New Iraqi PM’s Reform Agenda

Though Iraq finally formed a government this October after more than a year of political wrangling, bringing about fundamental change remains a challenging endeavor. Muhammed Shia’ al-Sudani, the new prime minister, will find it difficult to halt Iraq’s plunge towards the abyss. Resolving the country’s multifaceted and profound crises will test the cabinet’s willingness and ability to implement tangible and lasting change within Iraqi society. This will require the government to move beyond the overused rhetoric of reform and implement actual reforms—a deceptively simple mandate.

One of the greatest challenges to wholesale reform is deep-seated corruption, which has engulfed not only most politicians, but businessmen and militia leaders. Extirpating such an intractable and entrenched foe has been the desire of Iraqis for many years.

Political actors will also be judged on how well they can diminish Iran’s influence in Iraq. Actively mitigating the power of Iran’s proxies and political allies would signal a radical departure from politics as usual by al-Sudani’s government. To achieve this goal, the government must begin by addressing Iranian armed forces constant bombardment of Northern Iraq and violation of Iraqi sovereignty. Finally, al-Sudani must monopolize the use of force within Iraqi territory. Militias in Iraq have roamed the country for far too long, and asserting the government’s dominance is a long overdue task.

Chronic, Crippling Corruption

Corruption in Iraq permeates the state and has become viewed as a terminal illness by Iraqi citizens. In its 2021 Corruption Perception Index, Transparency International ranked Iraq’s public sector corruption as 157 out of 180, putting the country. An internal investigation organized by the Iraqi Parliament concluded that $240 billion were transferred out of the country illegally. The Iraqi president estimated that $150 billion in public funds have been lost to embezzlement since 2003. The electricity ministry alone accounted for $41 billion in losses. The problems associated with corruption surpass a simple lack of funds; UN envoy Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, mentioned in her report to the Security Council in October that “pervasive corruption is a major root cause of Iraqi dysfunctionality” in general.

Though al-Sudani has shown signs that he is willing to fight corruption, past experience with Iraqi politicians at the highest level indicates that tackling this problem is much easier said than done. In his first speech, the prime minister blamed corruption for many of the economic ills that have beset the country. He went as far to say that corruption posed a greater threat to Iraq’s economic security than the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The new Iraqi government created a commission with the express purpose to investigate major cases of corruption, such as the theft of $2.5 billion from the tax authority. However, the country’s past anti-corruption drives indicate that commissions are toothless in the face of widespread graft. Some anti-corruption initiatives have even been declared unlawful, severely hampering their effectiveness. Moreover, corruption charges are usually leveled at limited or mid-level officials, rather than the major political players whose ties to corrupt activities are particularly strong.

The Specter of Iranian Aggression

Iran’s decades-long violation of Iraqi sovereignty has drawn only the occasional condemnation from Baghdad. Indeed, the Iraqi government has taken few concrete actions to bring about an end to Iranian adventurism within Iraq’s borders. In 2017, for instance, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) conducted a cross-border raid into Iraqi Kurdistan against individuals Tehran considered terrorists. In 2018, the IRGC also launched surface-to-surface missiles into Iraqi Kurdistan that, according to the IRGC-linked Tasnim news agency, targeted the training grounds of “anti-Iran terrorists and…a meeting of terrorist leaders.” Iranian incursions have become more brazen this past year. In March, Iran attacked Erbil with a dozen ballistic missiles. In September, Iran launched an IRGC-led incursion into Iraqi territory; six Iraqi villages had to be evacuated as a result. Two months later, the IRGC carried out another attack in Iraqi Kurdistan using drones and missiles. The attacks were accompanied with threats of further violence. During his visit to Iraq, Quds Force leader Ismael Qaani threatened Iraqi officials in Baghdad and in Erbil with a ground military operation if Kurdish opposition groups continued to operate with impunity along the Iraq-Iran border.

These attacks further demonstrated the weakness of the Iraqi government in the face of direct threats to its autonomy and sovereignty. Al-Sudani’s cabinet would do well to address this issue urgently. Despite Iraq’s deployment of troops to the northern border with Iran, the problem will likely continue. It is doubtful that the Iraqi army will stop border crossing of the Iranian Kurdish fighters when Iran failed. The new government’s immediate actions will be telling, as they will demonstrate just how seriously Baghdad takes Iraq’s sovereignty and how al-Sudani will balance Iraq’s security imperatives with the more parochial interests of his partners in the government who act as Iranian proxies. Mere diplomatic protestations will not suffice. Inaction would suggest that the al-Sudani government will stay the course vis-a-vis Iran—a policy that has thus far only curtailed Iraq’s sovereignty.

Taming the Militias

Despite the formal integration of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in the nation’s political apparatus, Iraqi militias remain independent of Baghdad’s control and immune to prosecution. The PMF has gained increasing influence in recent years in Iraq, but has not been held accountable for its own culpability for numerous human rights violations during the war against ISIS and the 2019 demonstrations. More empowered, the PMF has increasingly sought to assert its independence from the national government. When Adel Abdul-Mehdi, a former Iraqi prime minister, issued a decree stipulating the abolition of the PMF military ranks and the closure of their offices, he was met with open resistance by members of the PMF. Groups under the umbrella of the PMF are clear that they will not abide by the directives of the prime minister. In 2021, Hadi al-Ameri, the head of the Badr Organization, a close ally of Iran, warned against any attempts at dissolving or merging the PMF. The general secretary of Kata’ib Hezbollah said he will not allow the disarmament of the “resistance.”

Serious reforms by the al-Sudani government and a departure from old practices would entail taming the militias in Iraq, holding them accountable according to the Iraqi law, and curbing the illicit economic activity that fuels their recruitment and operations. The independence of the PMF and the various militias that constitute this military force is inimical to the very foundations of the Iraqi state and does more damage to Iraq’s economy and society than good. How the al-Sudani government deals with the PMF will show how far it is willing to go to assert Baghdad’s control over the various factions vying for power within Iraq.

During his first weeks in office, Al-Sudani has continued to posture as a reformer. During a recent visit to a hospital, the prime minister criticized the building’s conditions and a lack of medical supplies. He also castigated absentee doctors and a dearth of patient services. This visit serves as an addendum to the sonorous rhetoric about the restoration of the government’s prestige and tackling corruption that brought him to power. This rhetoric, however, must be backed by action. Iraqis have long known that their politicians talk of reforms but rarely implement them. If al-Sudani aspires to differentiate himself from the typical Iraqi politicians that have occupied the halls of power for so long, he will have to back his rhetoric with substance.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

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Dr. Massaab Al-Aloosy is a Non-Resident Fellow at Gulf International Forum and a researcher focusing on Iraq, Iran, and Shia non-state armed groups. He holds a PhD from the Fletcher School-Tufts University and is the author of The Changing Ideology of Hezbollah, Palgrave 2020.

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