The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Iraqis protest deadly hospital fires as symptom of embedded corruption

Demands for a stable electricity supply also raise the stakes in this fall’s election

Iraqis demonstrate to demand that authorities hold accountable the killers of dozens of activists associated with a long-running protest movement. (Asaad Niazi/AFP/Getty Images)

For many Iraqis, it has been a summer of tragedy. Last week, a fire tore through the covid-19 isolation ward at a hospital in the southern city of Nasiriya, killing 60 people. Months earlier, a similar fire in a Baghdad hospital intensive care unit killed 82 covid patients.

The summer has also featured temperatures rising above 120 degrees at a time when the government is failing to provide the electricity needed for people to cope. These hospital fires and electricity cuts have prompted angry protests — and many Iraqis see government corruption and mismanagement as the root of their suffering.

This summer will be followed by an election, Iraq’s sixth since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Despite the government’s failures during the scorching-hot summer, many Iraqis do not see voting as a way to bring about change. Many even call for a boycott of the election.

Turnout in the December 2005 election was about 80 percent, and only an estimated 30 percent of eligible voters turned out in the last election in 2018. Many expect this figure to be even lower this year — but why are many Iraqis walking away from these elections despite their anger toward the current government?

The government failed to meet demands in 2019

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi came into office just over a year ago promising to address protest demands for reform. Presenting himself as the protesters’ candidate, he even brought aboard protest leaders focused on these issues. He promised to tackle corruption, the main protest grievance.

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Since coming into office, Kadhimi’s government has arrested or issued warrants for several officials on corruption charges. A few months ago, the Commission of Integrity, Iraq’s primary anti-corruption body, reported that 52 officials with ministerial ranks had been issued court summons.

However, while some have applauded these efforts in Washington, many Iraqis remain unconvinced. At the heart of this impasse is a fundamental disagreement on the root of the problem. To Kadhimi, removing relatively easy targets is a sign of his anti-corruption agenda at work, as part of an incremental reform program. But research suggests disillusioned Iraqis are less concerned with petty or personal corruption, such as paying small bribes. Their grievances instead point to Iraq’s system of governance, which enables the major political parties to share wealth and power gained through their access to the Iraqi government without ensuring basic safety at hospitals or a supply of electricity.

Jailing officials who have waning political party top cover isn’t addressing the core protest demands, which do not call for the removal of a specific political party or leader but for systemic reform.

How Iraq institutionalized corruption

A recently published Chatham House Iraq Initiative paper argues that the root of Iraq’s corruption problem is not personal wealth accumulation or greed, but rather politically sanctioned corruption. The post-2003 ethno-sectarian power-sharing arrangement — designed to ensure communal stability — has instead sustained an elite pact in which the ruling political parties compete and cooperate to capture and compromise the formal institutions of government. In doing so, they have become tremendously wealthy, at the expense of citizens.

Since 2016, Iraqi leaders have responded to demands for reform by placing weak, independent technocrats in ministerial roles. They and their international allies, including the United States, have argued that placing nonpolitical individuals in positions of power can help reform the system.

Iraq’s technocrats, however, have failed to push reform. Instead, government ministers often complain they are powerless in the face of their own employees. Power has shifted away from heads of government and toward senior civil servants within the formal bureaucracy.

Part of this system is the hundreds of “special grades” (al-darajat al-khasa) appointments, in which the ruling elite send proxies to serve their interests as senior civil servants. These positions are spread out across the government, particularly in the contracting and budgetary entities of each ministry and agency. These civil servants actually run the ministries, despite the official hierarchy. They largely determine how funds are spent — and in doing so funnel large sums to their patrons. In return, their patrons provide the civil servants with the top cover needed to keep their positions.

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How does this link to this summer’s hospital fires? The Ministry of Health has long been a key prize for the ruling elite, which routinely siphon off millions of dollars in revenue from the country’s health budget through the contracting process. This practice, however, may leave the health-care sector short of necessary services and equipment.

The Iraqi government announced a formal review of hospital safety procedures after the first fire. The ward that burned in Nasiriya, for instance, had no working fire extinguishers. The ward itself was propped up by cheap, flammable building materials. Kadhimi’s minister of health, Hassan al-Tamimi, who was forced to resign after the first hospital fire, had for more than a decade served as a special grades senior civil servant and reportedly made decisions favorable to the Muqtada al-Sadrists movement. Although forced to resign as minister, he was allowed to keep his position as director general.

This case is not an anomaly, but reflects how power and politics work in Iraq. The Chatham House report details how this systemic corruption involves a collective decision at the highest levels of government to use unfair access to government resources for the benefit of the whole ruling elite. A consequence of this system is the negligence that leads to poor services — and deaths.

Why Iraqis see elections as somewhat futile

Faced with another election, many Iraqis think their vote cannot change the system of politically sanctioned corruption. After each election, the same political parties come together to effectively divide up lucrative, senior-level civil service postings. The top two winners from the 2018 elections — the Sadrists and the PMF-aligned Fateh — leveraged their success by increasing their share of senior civil servants.

A recent Biden administration memorandum reiterated that anti-corruption efforts were a core U.S. national security interest. Many Iraqis agree that corruption is a threat to their own safety and security. But what has become clear is that efforts to combat Iraq’s systemic corruption also face the challenge of addressing the politics behind it.

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Renad Mansour is a senior research fellow and director of the Iraq Initiative at Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Program, and co-author of “Once Upon a Time in Iraq,” published by BBC Books/Penguin to accompany the critically acclaimed BBC series.