Last week, Iraq’s minister of health, Ala Alwan, resigned. He is the first minister of the current government, formed a year ago, to resign his post and in a statement he gave his reasons: He could no longer work under the kind of pressure put upon him by various corrupt individuals in authority. He was paying the price of being what many consider a technocratic, rather than a political appointment.
Ordinary Iraqis had called for an end to corruption and the appointment of ministers who actually knew what they were doing – Alwan was the epitome of this: Previously a professor at a Baghdad university and an adviser to the World Health Organisation.
But now, he couldn’t go on: The current system was preventing the positive development of his ministry, he wrote in a long letter in which he blamed “blackmail and misinformation”.
Previously politicians had only two options: To surrender to the corrupt practices or to resign.
However Iraqi prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, rejected the resignation and told Alwan to reconsider his decision. This is, in fact, the second time that Alwan has tried to resign. Other ministers and politicians defended Alwan saying that they too understood what he was up against.
This reaction seems to indicate that, almost for the first time, politicians are being open about what they are up against in terms of trying to reform the Iraqi system. In Iraq, long standing networks of tribal fealty and family relationships have led to cronyism and nepotism that are extremely hard to erase, simply because they are so insidious and cultural. The other Iraqi politicians have come to understand that keeping silent or being reluctant to support a colleague like Alwan equals surrender to the corrupt systems that undermine the effective functioning of state institutions. Previously they had only two options: To surrender to the corrupt practices or to resign.
In just a few weeks, the current Iraqi government will celebrate its first anniversary in power. Faced with growing anger from voters, the government has tried to work on two major points – fighting corruption inside the country and committing to a neutral foreign policy outside the country.
Last week, a number of politicians from different parties – including the significant and popular bloc led by the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr – began campaigning against the current prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, threatening to replace him because the government wasn’t making sufficient progress. But the campaign didn’t last long, perhaps because there are no real alternatives right now and circumstances are far from ideal for a renegotiation of senior roles.
The most recent developments both inside the country and outside have weakened this government’s position and embarrassed it, particularly as tensions between the Iraq’s two major allies, Iran and the US, have increased.
Recent international incidents – where Israel targeted weapons depots inside Iraq, saying they stored Iranian armaments, and then where either Iranian affiliates or Iran itself bombed Saudi Arabian oil facilities – are just more fuel for this diplomatic fire.
This is felt even more in Iraq, where several MPs have made statements saying they were happy about the attacks on Saudi Arabia and congratulating the Yemenis for their “success”. This has seen Iraq’s burgeoning diplomacy – dozens of visits made by Iraqis around the region to underline the country’s new neutral stance –abruptly curtailed.
At the same time, one of Baghdad’s biggest internal successes seems to be coming unravelled. Late in 2017, the relationship between the Iraqi federal government and authorities in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan soured when the region held a referendum on independence – that is, they voted to secede from the rest of the country.
The Iraqi government sent troops north to ensure that this didn’t happen, setting off a relationship breakdown that would have ongoing financial and political repercussions for the whole country and the Kurdish region. The new government managed to come to an agreement with Iraqi Kurdish authorities and sent the region’s share of the federal budget for the first time in months, allowing the payment of Kurdish government employees, among other things.
However a few weeks ago, Iraqi MPs began criticizing the deal, threatening not to renew it in next year’s budget if the Iraqi Kurdish didn’t pay their oil revenues into the national coffers (from where the federal budget is drawn). Negotiations over territory disputed for years – places like Kirkuk, which the Kurdish say belong to their region but the Iraqis believe are part of Iraq proper – did not progress either. Thanks to pressure from Arab politicians, a potential negotiation that would have replaced an Arab governor in Kirkuk with a Kurdish one fell apart.
If that wasn’t enough, the Iraqi government has also recently been dealing with reports that foretold a grim economic outlook for Iraq, suggesting that a financial crisis must hit next year. The destruction caused by the security crisis, battling the extremist group known as the Islamic State, has been expensive – money was spent on fighting the extremists and must now be spent on reconstruction in affected areas like Mosul, Anbar and Salahaddin as well as on housing the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who remain displaced as a result of the fighting.
Reports suggest that there has been a significant decrease in revenues coming into Iraq’s federal coffers, from oil revenues and non-oil incomes, MP Inam al-Khuzai has said, with non-oil revenues reduced by over half between August 2018 and this August.