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From Insurgency to Electricity: What Iraq Reforms May Mean

  • Heather Murdock

Thousands of Iraqis have braved the scorching summer heat to stage the protest against government corruption in Tahrir Square in Baghdad, Aug. 7, 2015.

Thousands of Iraqis have braved the scorching summer heat to stage the protest against government corruption in Tahrir Square in Baghdad, Aug. 7, 2015.

In recent weeks, protesters in Iraq sweltered in the excessive heat — sometimes over 122 degrees Farenheit — demanding more access to electricity and other basic services.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi then promised widespread reforms, and this week began firing high-level officials he deemed corrupt.

If successful, anti-corruption reforms could help provide the people with services, help the army fight insurgencies and be a boon to Abadi’s career, according to Renad Mansour, a Carnegie Middle East Center scholar who specializes in Iraq.

But, he cautions, that is a big “if.”

“I think we need to take it with a grain of salt at the moment,” he said, “because there are serious restrictions and possibilities of hiccups and roadblocks along the way.”

Analysts say corruption in is deeply entrenched in many Iraqi institutions and powerful people are expected to do everything in their power to block the reforms.

At the same time, according to Mansour, the overwhelming demand from the public, allied with religious leaders, is forcing officials to at least publicly support the reforms. “There is a serious force that’s driving this initiative,” he explained.

Abadi himself could become more powerful if the reforms are a success, Mansour said. It would give him a chance to “solidify his position” as prime minister, separating him from other allied politicians with reputations for corruption, and from politicians who may be competing for power.

Critics have accused the prime minister of using the demands for reform as an excuse to get rid of political rivals.

Whatever its motivation, according to Baghdad reporter Suadad al-Salhy of Middle East Eye, the Iraqi government has no choice but to reform or lose legitimacy in the eyes of its people.

Iraqis blame days-long power outages, salty water and shortages of basic goods largely on corruption, she says, adding that it has left the Iraqi government unable to function efficiently, which is one of the underlining causes of the Islamic State’s (IS's) rise to power in 2014. Corruption is also related to the Iraqi army’s apparent inability to beat back the militants, despite support from the U.S.-led coalition.

“Everything is related to the corruption,” she said. “The real problem in this country is the corruption which provides a cover or an umbrella for the Islamic State and other insurgencies.”

Self-proclaimed IS fighters have controlled large portions of Iraq and Syria for more than a year, and the group been blamed for countless rapes, murders, robberies, kidnappings and other gruesome crimes. The violence has not let up during this long, hot summer.

On Thursday, IS claimed responsibility for a bombing in a Baghdad market that killed at least 60 people and injured at least 100 more.

"Here, there is no protection by security soldiers,” said Muhammed Jasim Hussein, a Baghdad resident in the market told Reuters after the bombing. “There was one security station before, but it was cancelled later."

Security problems in Iraq, according to the Carnegie Center’s Mansour, are also at least partially a result of disorganization among security forces. Abadi’s proposed reforms would also include centralizing the forces through the Ministry of Defense.

“This is a way for him to say, ‘We need to begin to institutionalize the security sector away from what’s happening now in Iraq,’” said Mansour. “Which is the state essentially being at the behest of different paramilitary groups.”