Last fall, anti-government protests broke out in Iraq. The protests started in Baghdad before spreading to other cities from Najaf to Nassiriya, rocking the country through the beginning of this year. High on the list the protestors’ demands: rooting out pervasive government corruption. The protestors are more than justified in making this demand. Systemic embezzlement, kickbacks, and bribery schemes pollute Iraqi politics and government services, and seemingly little has been done to get the problem under control.
Iraq’s chief anticorruption body is an entity called the Federal Commission of Integrity (CoI), an independent commission originally created in 2004, and recognized under Article 102 of the 2005 Iraqi Constitution as an independent body subject to monitoring by the Iraqi Parliament. CoI is tasked with investigating corruption cases, recovering stolen government assets, proposing anticorruption legislation, and overseeing mandatory financial disclosures for Iraqi government officials. With respect to its investigative functions, CoI has a mixed track record. On the one hand, despite the extraordinarily challenging environment in which it operates, CoI has achieved some successes. For example, last November a CoI investigation led to the arraignment of a Member of Parliament, Ahmed al-Jubouri, on corruption charges for misappropriating government funds. A month later, in December 2019, a previous CoI investigation into former MP Shadha al-Abousy culminated in her conviction. More generally, official statistics indicate that in 2017, CoI handled 8,537 criminal cases, and of the 1,221 cases completed that year, 753 resulted in convictions—including seven convictions of ministerial-level government officials. The 2018 data reveal 1,218 convictions, including four ministerial-level officials. (Official 2019 statistics are not, to my knowledge, available yet.)
On the other hand, CoI has had difficulty securing the convictions of powerful, influential figures. For example, only days after Ahmed al-Jubouri’s arrest, he was released following the intervention of Iraq’s Parliament Speaker, Mohammed Halbusi. Furthermore, of the high-level convictions CoI has achieved, most have been handed down in absentia, with defendants remaining at large. And CoI has had limited success recovering stolen public funds. Statistics for the first quarter of 2018 reveal that CoI had recovered $131.8 million in stolen funds. In all of 2017, $111.7 million previously lost to corruption made it back into government coffers. That may seem like a lot, but keep in mind that in 2019 alone, CoI estimated that $15.6 billion of Iraqi state funds had been lost to corruption. Since 2003, estimates put total state funds lost to corruption at upwards of $300 billion. So CoI’s recovery efforts have barely made a dent in the amount of money embezzled. Moreover, most of the cases handled by CoI that involved stolen funds have been against relatively low-level government employees.
So, while COI has brought thousands of corruption cases to courts and secured hundreds of low-level convictions, it has been less successful in tackling high-level corruption. But this is no reason to give up on the commission. A few key changes could make CoI a much more effective anticorruption body.
First, if CoI is to successfully pursue high-profile corruption cases, the commission must be further insulated from the political branches of Iraq’s government. Currently, the Prime Minister appoints the CoI commissioner, and the commissioner can be removed by a vote of Parliament. Beyond these official appointment and removal powers, political oversight has enabled politicians to intervene on behalf of high-ranking officials caught in corruption scandals, in at least two cases helping release officials after their initial arrests (including the al-Jubouri case noted above). It would be better if the power to appoint and remove senior CoI officials were delegated to the Iraqi Supreme Court. Doing so would send a strong signal that the commission should not be subject to undue political influence, and would bolster its ability to successfully pursue high-level corruption cases. While it might be politically infeasible to make such a change during ordinary times, the mass protests may have put political elites on notice that they need to take anticorruption seriously, and this sort of institutional reform might now be more palatable.
Second, CoI itself can improve its effectiveness by focusing on the most serious and significant corruption allegations, rather than getting bogged down by thousands of low-level cases. Low-level convictions may be easier to investigate and prosecute, boosting the number of reported convictions, and they are certainly less likely to cause the sort of political controversy that could put CoI in the crosshairs of its parliamentary overseers. But racking up hundreds or thousands of low-level convictions will not do much to stamp out Iraq’s systemic corruption. CoI should focus its investigations on corruption allegations involving prominent government officials, and should focus its asset recovery efforts on cases where substantial funds have been stolen.
Third, Parliament should pass legislation expanding CoI’s mandate to include oversight of investing recovered funds. When CoI recovers stolen funds, it should have the authority to earmark those funds for high-priority development projects, rather than simply returning the money to the general treasury, and CoI should be able to directly monitor the investment of those funds. This would ensure that recovered funds aren’t lost to corruption a second time.
Iraq’s long track record of systemic corruption often leaves little room for optimism. Throughout the post-2003 period, however, CoI has grown in institutional capacity and influence. And while its successes to date have had limited impact on the broad scope of government corruption, CoI has demonstrated the ability to go after high-profile government officials. The political opening created by the recent protests should be galvanized to strengthen CoI’s independence, empower it to pursue the most serious cases, and extend its authority to ensure that recovered assets foster development rather than falling back into corrupt hands.