August 12, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Can Iraq Reform?

• A combination of persistent blackouts, a crushing heat wave, and systemic government incompetence has created the most significant chance for reform in Iraq since 2003

• The mass demonstrations in Baghdad against government corruption and incompetence have provided a rare, potentially unifying, issue for a country often divided along sectarian lines

• The Iraqi parliament has unanimously approved Prime Minister Abadi’s recommendations to streamline the government, reduce the ubiquitous security details, and sack unqualified officials—though implementation may be resisted

• The best weapon against groups such as the Islamic State is a reformed Iraqi government and society, though the country remains deeply divided.


Given the dearth of positive news out of Iraq, one must guard against the temptation to clutch at any positive development in the divided country as a harbinger of long-illusive meaningful political progress. With that in mind, the recent mass demonstrations against systemic government incompetence and corruption have brought about the possibility of positive change—if actually implemented. On August 11, the Iraqi parliament unanimously approved the proposed government reforms submitted by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Among these are proposals to streamline the government by reducing the numerous vice presidents and deputy prime minister positions; to scrap the sectarian quota system implemented during the U.S. occupation; to cut down the number of personal security details that have turned many government officials into mini-warlords; and to create a commission to investigate the many cases of corruption that have been ignored for years.

Al-Abadi has the backing of Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who has urged the prime minister to do more against the corruption that has plagued every level of government for years. Longstanding and deep-seated corruption has now led to an intense public backlash that is different from other protests, in that it is not sectarian in nature, but rather a call for effective governance. The powerful Shi'a militias have also supported these protests—presenting al-Abadi with either a powerful ally or a serious opponent, should he lose their favor, as previous prime minister Nouri al-Maliki deservedly did last summer. Sunni politicians such as Speaker of the Parliament Salim al-Jabouri have also voiced support for the proposals, as have officials from the United Nations and numerous other countries.

While the initial reaction has been positive, genuine reform efforts in Iraq have a sad history of starving to death while awaiting implementation; powerful factions and blocs are able to slow-roll any progress until inertia ensures a return to the status quo. Many of these factions and officials will try to delay any action, and may even react violently if they think their slice of the ill-gotten pie is being taken away. It will take sustained public pressure and non-sectarian leadership to turn the peaceful protests into peaceful progress.

In the backdrop of these possible reforms lurks the Islamic State, the group that has benefited most from the lack of reform since 2003. While the group’s violent ideology is global in outlook, its support base is grounded in Iraq, among the Sunni populations weary of government persecution, both real and perceived. The Islamic State would likely still exist in Iraq if the government and society were less divided, but it would likely not hold territory; it would remain a terrorist group and nothing more. The country’s endemic corruption—Iraq ranks 170 out of 175 countries in Transparency International’s 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index—renders the government something to fight against and not something to fight for, helping to explain the low numbers of recruits for the military, while the militias face no such difficulty.

The Islamic State’s army will not be defeated by political reform and good governance alone; it is now a capable fighting force that needs to be countered militarily. However, its appeal to disgruntled and dismayed Iraqis can certainly be blunted through systemic reform that cuts away the rot that has all but destroyed the country as a unified nation. As much as the corrupt politicians, the Islamic State will fight the reformers; the future of both groups depends on exploiting and expanding public misery. If public pressure is focused and directed by effective leadership, it could be harnessed to move the government and society towards needed reform. If it is not channeled effectively, it will dissipate in the dry Iraqi air.


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