BAGHDAD — After five years of trying to get a job as a public school teacher, Saleh Ali paid a bribe of $4,300 to an official in Iraq’s Education Ministry to secure one. He says it was the only way.
The 29-year-old’s experience is a common one in Iraq, where corruption permeates every facet of society. But Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is pledging to change that, with the biggest shake-up in Iraq’s political system since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Abadi’s recently announced reform package has been heralded as a possible turning point for the country, but it also puts him in a perilous position. Powerful officials who benefit from the status quo or face potential scrutiny are likely to obstruct his efforts, while failure risks stoking public anger at a time when the government is facing popular protests and a security crisis.
Officials estimate that $300 billion to $350 billion has gone missing from government coffers since 2003 because of graft. Iraq ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in the world last year, placing 170th out of 175 countries in Transparency International’s corruption index.
“The corruption has spread over the state like a cancer,” said Ahmed Abdel Hussein, a newspaper columnist and activist who has organized protests in the capital. “From the highest officials to the lowest employees, it’s become a culture.”
In addition to greasing palms to obtain government jobs, citizens have found it necessary to pay bribes to navigate the country’s bloated bureaucracy. High school students pay for leaked exam papers, traffic police take payoffs to not issue tickets and huge kickbacks are given to secure government contracts or construction permits.
The extent of the problem makes it unlikely that Abadi can achieve meaningful change, said Ali Khedery, who was a special assistant to five U.S. ambassadors in Iraq.
“Virtually every national-level politician and virtually every political party is complicit,” he said.
But addressing the issue has taken on a new urgency. Iraq can no longer afford to have billions of dollars disappear from its budget as it attempts to combat Islamic State militants while under a financial squeeze because of falling oil prices.
“It has shaken us and opened us up to what needs to be done to reform the economy,” said Finance Minister Hoshyar Zebari. “We have a serious cash-flow problem.”
In addition to graft, there is chronic overspending. Zebari said salaries and pensions cost the Shiite-led government more than $3 billion a month. Members of parliament take home about $11,000 a month — more than 20 times the average salary in the country.
Some officials also enlist what amount to small armies for their personal protection, all paid for by the state. One official has 900 guards, Abadi disclosed in a discussion with youth activists last week. He said he has 38.
Abadi, who has long sought to trim the budget but faced opposition from political blocs, has responded to the recent anti-graft protests with speed. The demonstrations have been endorsed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, giving the prime minister further impetus to act.
In a first step toward his promised reforms, Abadi cut his cabinet by a third this week and axed four ministries. Security details for politicians will be cut by as much as 90 percent, he said Thursday, freeing up 20,000 men for other duties such as fighting the Islamic State.
But pledges to end Iraq’s sectarian-based power-sharing system and bring corrupt politicians to account will prove more challenging.
Talal al-Zubai, head of parliament’s integrity committee, said the body has recommended 500 cases for investigation in the past year. But he said few have been followed up by the courts and a supposedly independent Integrity Commission, which is mandated to investigate such cases.
“We need independent judges away from political pressure,” he said. “Speaking frankly, if there’s no reform in the judicial system or the Integrity Commission, nothing is going to get fixed.”
Saad al-Hadithi, a spokesman for the prime minister, said, however, that Abadi has no power to reform the judiciary.
At the offices of the Integrity Commission in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, the panel’s head conceded that there was a problem when he took over earlier this year.
“I’m willing to change this image, change this situation and prove the independence of the commission and put it aside from political pressure,” Hassan al-Yasiri said.
The culture of corruption runs deep, he said. It worsened in the later years of Saddam Hussein’s rule, when the country was hit by sanctions. And things did not improve after the U.S.-led invasion, with little oversight exercised over the huge contracts handed out during the tenure of Nouri al-Maliki, Abadi’s predecessor.
“This made people greedy,” Yasiri said.
The real test for Abadi will be if any prominent politicians are held accountable, Khedery said. “Somebody is responsible, and somebody has to be prosecuted,” he said. “If not, it’s all over.”
Yasiri said hundreds of cases have been opened against Iraqi officials in recent weeks. However, Maliki, who may face trial over his role in the fall of Mosul to the Islamic State last year after being named in a parliamentary investigation, is not among those being investigated over corruption, as there has been no “official complaint” against him, Yasiri said.
There was some hope that senior officials would be held to account after a probe into allegations against former deputy prime minister Bahaa al-Araji was announced this month.
His home, with Roman-style columns along the facade, overlooks the Tigris River from the Shiite neighborhood of Kadhimiyah, occupying some of Baghdad’s most prime real estate.
In a television interview earlier this year in which he was quizzed on his income, he appeared unsure about how many properties he owned.
“I have a house, I have a building beside the shrine, I have a hotel, and seven . . . four houses besides that,” he told Babiliya television in January. When asked where he got the money, he replied, “God gave me more than I deserve. I consider this a blessing from God.”
The nine charges against him include property racketeering and financial corruption. Araji did not respond to calls for comment, while his guards — members of a 300-strong retinue paid for by the state, according to documents provided by the integrity committee — said he was not home.
“He’s the biggest thief,” said Abu Ali, a vendor near Araji’s home who used a pseudonym for security reasons. “We never see him. He comes through in his armored cars. He’s in his own world.”
Protesters welcomed the investigation, but Yasiri noted that Araji had requested it himself in a bid to fight the long-standing allegations against him — underscoring doubts about whether Iraq’s weak institutions are capable of launching investigations of the political elite on their own.
“We all feel threatened,” said Taha al-Difaie, an integrity committee member. “Any file targeting anyone powerful creates a big risk.”
In a statement Tuesday, Abadi said he would not hesitate to refer those involved in corruption to the judiciary “no matter what their status or positions.”
But Iraqis’ patience is wearing thin. In the southern city of Basra, protesters this week burned billboards depicting politicians accused of corruption. On Tuesday, they broke into a local government building and dragged the mayor out of his office.
“We aren’t going to be silent,” said Abdel Hussein, the activist and protest organizer. “Abadi has opened a little door for us, but we need the big door opened.”
Mustafa Salim contributed to this report.