How Corruption Impedes Reconstruction in Iraq after ISIS

In this post Matthew Schweitzer shares from his recent trip into eastern Mosul’s liberated territories. While he was there to assess relations between civil society organizations and security actors, he encountered many Moslawis who did not trust national politicians to manage long-term reconstruction. He talks in this post about the culture of corruption and patronage among politicians as one of the most significant obstacles to future stability in the their region, and about a path away from corruption.

In late March, a group of masked men removed newly-installed water pumps and electrical generators from a sanitation facility in eastern Mosul. While small-scale looting has been reported across the city’s liberated areas as civilians struggle to restore lost livelihoods, this incident was different. One week after its disappearance, the equipment was quietly returned undamaged. No explanation was given, nor was any investigation opened. One local NGO official later explained how “the theft was a simple but dangerous declaration that police and army do not control Mosul…. Instead, the city belongs to thieves and political forces, which seek only personal gain.”

Her claims highlight what is perhaps the greatest spoiler to Iraq’s ability to stabilize liberated territory, rebuild its infrastructure, and deliver essential services to its population. Systemic corruption – the result of long-term weakening across the state’s institutions since the 1990s – influences nearly all aspects of Iraqi political and economic life today, from Baghdad’s government ministries to Mosul’s street corners. As the country’s leaders look to simultaneously fund massive reconstruction efforts in areas cleared of ISIS, prosecute future counterinsurgency operations, and manage a crippling economic crisis, they must also overcome the extreme corruption embedded deep within the state apparatus.

Corruption as an Obstacle to State Legitimacy: The Case of Mosul’s Reconstruction

As the battle to clear ISIS from Mosul grinds into its final stages, the next great test for Iraqi leaders will be whether they can rebuild liberated areas. While many of Mosul’s residents have energetically launched ad-hoc reconstruction projects across the city, their work has been handicapped by local armed actors that have co-opted informal service provision networks.

During a March 2017 trip into eastern Mosul’s liberated territories to assess relations between civil society organizations and security actors, I spoke with numerous Moslawis who did not trust national politicians to manage long-term reconstruction. The majority of these civilians identified a culture of corruption and patronage among politicians as one of the most significant obstacles to future stability; they believed local and national leaders seek only to enhance their own political influence by controlling funds and human resources in the city. As one local NGO official explained bitterly, “for Mosul’s people to have any security or future, they must form their own militia that can collect money and enforce its own laws.”

Within Mosul’s liberated eastern neighborhoods, extortion of civilian populations has manifested on a hyper-local level; some streets within a given neighborhood are divided by two or three checkpoints, each operated by a distinct unit. According to local security forces interviewed in March and April 2017, approximately 30-39 distinct armed groups have established zones of operation within Mosul.

Since January 2017, myriad factions have established schemes to siphon resource that are already in-place. For example, some healthcare clinics in eastern Mosul have reportedly been robbed of vital supplies like intravenous fluid, bandages and medicines, which can be sold for exorbitant prices on the black market. As one physician concluded, “We must buy back our own material. Right now, we are struggling to survive, even as we are bled from all sides.” In another neighborhood where government engineers have not yet restored electrical or water services, local entrepreneurs established networks of diesel-powered generators. By charging local ‘managers’ a monthly rent to provide electricity in their neighborhoods, these groups can collect about $21 worth of electricity per family in a month. In the three months since liberation, these street-by-street economies have solidified along factional lines.

Many of these groups also act as muscle for political parties and parliamentary blocs to secure financial interests within the reconstruction context. For example, in one neighborhood, a Member of Parliament who is also a prominent figure within a minority ethnic militia has reportedly received government funding to rebuild areas around Jonah’s Shrine, as well as the shrine itself. According to a Ninewa antiquities official in charge of preservation, “Such an award means that the militias will take credit for rebuilding these areas, and take a cut of the funding set aside for reconstruction. They can put their flag on the heritage these areas hold, and they will deepen their financial independence from Baghdad.”

For many Moslawis now operating within these nascent patronage and extortion networks, failed attempts to address extortion and other exploitative practices point to two troubling realities: Deeply-entrenched corruption defines the rules of the Iraqi political game, and national politicians are more powerful than the will of the people they purportedly represent. Any long-term transformation of Iraq’s extortive political system will require leaders to recognize the deeply corrosive impact of corruption on the stability of the state. Many civilians, however, do not believe such change is possible in the current context. “We do not need any parliamentary representative or ministry official to speak on our behalf,” one Mosul resident declared. “Instead, we know the guidelines, and must pay our dues to the correct people if we want to recover our lives. Our future must be local.”

Delegitimizing the State

Memories of high hopes and missed opportunities in the fight against corruption shape expectations for recovery of infrastructure and governance systems in critical urban centers like Mosul. Because corruption has been institutionalized at the highest echelons of Iraq’s government, similar practices among local administrators and non-state actors have been accepted by populations at a micro-level.

It is widely accepted in Baghdad and beyond Iraq’s borders that the country’s governing culture of graft and official excess has robbed it of otherwise achievable stability and prosperity. Nearly 40 years of cyclical conflict left the country with a governance system that functions in the middle ground between inclusiveness and competition. Iraqi researcher Bilal Wahab explained thus: “Everyone has an interest in the state’s survival, but also in keeping it weak…. Politicians want to maintain this system because it allows them to secure funding and influence.” By placing a party member at the head of a ministry or in a high-level position, political blocs are able to channel funds to their own coffers. This model ultimately leaves a state that is not rooted in rule of law, good governance, or service delivery. According to Wahab, “if the state could deliver these services to its people, the power of political parties would weaken as a result.”

Iraqis often dismiss their country’s politicians with a dialectical phrase, bas ye-boog – “they just steal” – and express a sense of hopelessness regarding prospects for change. Rising popular anger against rampant corruption coalesced into mass protests across Iraq in 2015 and 2016. Initially spurred by electricity shortages during 2015’s particularly brutal summer months, demonstrators soon began to call on the government to deliver services and hold corrupt officials to account. Initially, the movement represented a shift in the country’s political landscape, comprising a genuine, cross-sectarian, liberal, and young constituency. They received critical support from the Shia religious establishment, which called on Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to implement a series of anti-corruption reforms. The Abadi government quickly responded, issuing an ambitious seven-point agenda to install technocrats in key cabinet posts, reduce spending, and address patronage networks shaping political participation – initial steps toward a more comprehensive strategy to root out corruption from Baghdad’s ministries.

Yet, Abadi was never able to implement even the preliminary elements outlined in his plan. Parliament voted to strip him of any mandate to conduct reforms in November 2015. The only outcome from this false start was the establishment of two committees on transparency and political parties’ use of public property – from which nothing has been heard since August 2015. As the Washington Institute’s Michael Knights explained, “the effects of Abadi’s plan [were] akin to the results one might expect if he had hired McKinsey or Boston Consulting Group….This sort of work is typically something to perform at a moment when the country is not in crisis.”

By summer 2016, the original popular movement was hijacked by the firebrand Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in a bid to re-assert his political relevance. His intervention re-cast faltering demonstrations with a sectarian hue, and anchored future demands for anti-corruption reform with grievances articulated by Shia communities in southern cities. Iraq’s anti-corruption movement has fractured according to this geography, rendering it at once impotent and divisive between regions with varying sectarian, socio-economic, and ethnic compositions. Subsequent protests against corrupt practices in cities across Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan have thus been increasingly disconnected. Isolation of grievance within these localities has prevented recurrent national mobilization against the political culture in Baghdad on the same scale witnessed in 2015.

A Path Away from Corruption

Abadi’s failure in 2015-2016 to address corruption and the subsequent regionalization of anti-corruption sentiment points to challenges the Baghdad government faces as it works to restore the state’s legitimacy in the eyes of populations liberated from ISIS rule. Yet, emergent hyper-local corruption in recently-liberated areas points to a more complex and challenging relationship between civilian populations, provincial political leaders, and the national government. Few Moslawis interviewed in March identified Baghdad as the preferred manager for reconstruction, instead seeing the capital’s policymakers as distant and unaccountable to local grievance. While many civilians were grateful to the Iraqi Security Forces for their sacrifices against ISIS, this respect did not translate across the civil-military divide.

For many interviewees, this latent distrust of national political figures is borne from the post-2003 weakening of state authority and subsequent proliferation of local corruption networks that block civilians from interacting directly or productively with their government. In Mosul, first Al Qaeda and then ISIS emerged from this context to co-opt services and undermine state authority at the municipal level before 2014.

The evolving relationship between national systems of institutionalized corruption and local experiences of extortion in Mosul is a crucial factor shaping sentiment among liberated populations in Iraq today. Anti-corruption actors may benefit from examining these dynamics through the lens of reconstruction if they seek to break patterns of marginalization and grievance that fuel violence, instability, and extremism.

Iraq and its international partners should increase transparency and accountability across the country’s political establishment, starting at the local level. For example, disclosing funding sources and allocation processes during the reconstruction process could be an achievable first step. Additionally, training programs for new civil servants in Mosul and other liberated territories could focus on ensuring best practices regarding procurement and spending.

Ultimately, these and other anti-corruption measures can only succeed if the country’s leaders commit the necessary political capital to achieving reform. As Iraqis emerge from the ISIS nightmare, they deserve such an effort.


This post is part of the corruption in fragile states seriesSubscribe to our mailing list to receive future posts from experts with unique insights, points of view, and experience on anti-corruption policy, program design, and implementation. We hope to hear and learn from your reactions to our posts. Please comment below or contact Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church, at Cheyanne Church cheyanne@besacsc.org, if you are interested in submitting a guest post.

Matthew Schweitzer is a researcher at the Education for Peace in Iraq Center, where he focuses on civil-military relations and development. He recently returned from northern Iraq, where he was assessing relationships between civil society organizations and security providers in liberated neighborhoods of eastern Mosul. He is also the editor of the Post-War Watch, and has written for a wide array of publications such as Foreign Policy, The Hill, World Politics Review, Al Jazeera, and Le Monde Diplomatique.

Header image: An Iraqi Army soldier guards a street in eastern Mosul, near Nabi Younis neighborhood. (March 2017) Credit: Matthew Schweitzer.

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