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.