Crying Over the Fate of a Couch Won't Reassure the Iraqi Public

Iraqi citizens are no longer prepared to accept that their oil- and gas-rich country cannot reliably provide them with electricity, water, social services and reputable judges.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi (left) looking at the damage after protesters stormed the Iraqi parliament building in Baghdad on May 1, 2016.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi (left) looking at the damage after protesters stormed the Iraqi parliament building in Baghdad on May 1, 2016.Credit: Iraqi Prime Minister's Office, AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“My sofa is my honor” is not just a slogan. It’s the headline of a campaign on Iraqi social networks, after hundreds of demonstrators broke into the parliament building over the weekend and wreaked destruction inside.

One of the “tragic victims” of last weekend’s attack was a fancy white sofa that had water thrown on it and what appeared to be blood smeared on its backrest. A picture of senior Iraqi officials looking mournfully at the stained couch as if they were witnessing a major terror attack scene inflamed the networks.

The deep sorrow of senior officials who cried for the couch’s fate but who didn’t seem particularly moved by a genuine terror attack that same day provided the public with more proof of the gap between the public and its elected officials.

Users quickly started Facebook pages with pictures of themselves peering sadly at their own couches. The disdain over the behavior of senior government officials is part of the enormous rage that has built up in recent years in Iraq against widespread corruption emptying government coffers, mainly since Haider al-Abadi became prime minister two years ago.

The war against the Islamic State group, as well as the schisms between Shi’ites and Sunnis and Iraqis and Kurds, may keep the Iraqi regime preoccupied. But Iraqi citizens are no longer prepared to accept that an oil- and gas-rich country cannot reliably provide electricity, quality water, social services, non-corrupt judges or even an honest ombudsman.

Failing state

According to a report this week by the Commission of Integrity, only $20 billion of the $150 billion the government spent on security acquisitions went on equipment, while the rest went into the pockets of concessionaires and middlemen. Contracts quoted prices 3-4 times the real amount. A total of $1.5 billion worth of planes were never delivered, and old weapons were purchased instead of new ones.

Finance Minister Hoshyar Zebari told U.K. daily The Guardian that the government spent $500-$600 million on paying the salaries of 30,000 soldiers who were not even serving in the army. Last year, 29 companies stole over $4 billion by inflating bills or taking payments that were not part of contracts. Last year, the commission managed to halt 19 contracts worth $1.5 billion that didn’t meet tender conditions. Meanwhile, Hyundai last month decided to put a partial halt to building an oil refinery in Karbala because the government hadn’t paid its debt to the Korean company.

Iraqi protesters walk past security forces outside the parliament in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, on May 1, 2016.Credit: Haidar Mohammed Ali, AFP

Iraq is a failing state whose failures have grown since 2003. The United States, which spent between $750 billion and $1.1 trillion in Iraq between 2003 and 2010, failed to fully supervise funds it invested in civilian infrastructure and certainly not the money Iraq started making once it renewed oil exports. Government ministers and ministries looked mainly after their party’s and movement’s coffers, each with a military wing or militia needing financing and arming. The U.S. government lost interest in the Iraqi government’s behavior the moment it withdrew its forces in late 2011. The Americans left management in the hands of the corrupt prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, whose ethnic policies created a deep split between the Sunni minority and Shi’ite leadership.

This split and the army’s rickety situation made it easy for ISIS to capture the state’s northern and western areas in 2014, relying on Sunni tribal support. The U.S. government belatedly recognized these developments, and has since been forced to redeploy some 4,000 fighters.

Iraq, which in recent years has become a military and economic ally of Iran, now makes it clear to the American government that despite the departure of Maliki, the same ethnic mechanisms – rooted deep in the culture of interests and stealing from the pot – are running the country.

Abadi did try to form a different government. He declared a reform program, including appointing technocrats rather than representatives of ethnic groups and political movements. He cut ministerial salaries and fired many corrupt officers, and even opened an investigation into hundreds of officers who fled the June 2014 battle with ISIS in Mosul.

But Abadi is also a party man, Maliki’s party, and also has interests and rivals. These rivals prevent him from changing the government’s composition out of fear that ministers will be appointed who would damage their financial interests.

Last week, he barely managed to approve the appointments of five out of 10 ministers he had sought to replace. It only happened after parliamentarians supporting him violently clashed with opponents, and after they were forced to flee the inner hall of the parliament building.

Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has once again emerged as the political strongman. His supporters were the ones who invaded the protected Green Zone after weeks of staging a sit-in strike at the zone’s entrance. Sadr supposedly supports Abadi’s reforms, but he demands their immediate implementation or else he will keep the protests in the streets against the government. He also has a list of his own ministerial candidates he wants to see appointed.

This is the regime the United States needs to work with to drive ISIS out of Iraq. True, the Iraqi army recaptured Ramadi with U.S. assistance and is now at Fallujah’s outskirts. However, the big challenge – liberating Mosul – will require much greater participation by the Iraqi army.

Iraqi security forces gesture from the top of a tank as they gather on the eastern fringes of Ramadi, Iraq, on February 8, 2016.Credit: Reuters

Even if it wins the battle, where will it find the money needed to restore it after rebuilding Ramadi, which itself will take many years and cost an estimated $10 billion. Who will rule Mosul, which is majority Sunni? How will rule between Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds be divided? The government has no answer. Neither does the U.S. government, which is only trying to register another achievement in the war against ISIS, while Iraq sinks into the Tigris and Euphrates.

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