Floating on a sea of oil, Iraq should by now have rebuilt its war-shattered infrastructure and restored its economy. But construction sites remain idle. Baghdad’s skyline is dotted with the sight of rusting cranes. Roads and bridges are cratered, potholed and broken. Power outages are still the norm, plaguing the Iraqi people with no heating in winter and no air-conditioning in the searing summer temperatures. Those wealthy enough to keep their refrigerators working and their mobile phones charged, must rely on privately owned generators. And as Baghdad’s infrastructure worsens, its population has continued to swell, bolstered by an influx of refugees fleeing from Middle East conflict zones. At the time of the American invasion in 2003, Baghdad had a population of 4.7 million. Today it is over 8.2 million.

Iraq is a broken country. Its infrastructure was ravaged by decades of sanctions and war during the rule of deposed President Saddam Hussein and by the U.S. led invasion in 2003 and the violent insurgency that followed. When ISIS seized over 40% of Iraqi territory in 2014, the resulting campaign to crush the black-clad jihadists led to the almost total destruction of the ancient Iraqi cities of Fallujah, Mosul and Ramadi. Middle East economists reckon the country needs around $100 billion (£70.7 billion) to rebuild. Its plight has been aggravated by the pandemic and by the collapse in oil prices, worsened by the global lockdown. Oil revenues are critical for Iraq. They fund the government’s universal food subsidy programme. Now, due to the budget deficit, the Iraqi government has faced challenges in paying the salaries of civil servants as well as pensions to its elderly citizens. 

The cause of Iraq’s disintegration cannot be blamed solely on Saddam  Hussein and the Bush / Blair invasion in 2003 that led to the overthrow of his cruel Baathist regime. The eight-year term in office from 2006 to 2014 of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a puppet of the Iranian regime, sowed the sectarian seeds, which set off a low-level civil war and paved the way for ISIS to invade the country from Syria. The ensuing insurgency and industrial scale corruption by Iraq’s political elite, crippled the country and rendered all pledges to reconstruct and rebuild the Iraqi economy meaningless. 

Announcing a new bill to tackle endemic corruption, the Iraqi President Barham Saleh recently claimed that the country’s politicians had embezzled $150 billion (£106 billion) since the allied invasion in 2003. He said the looted funds had come mainly from oil revenues, some of which had been used to finance terrorists and insurgents. President Saleh said the new bill would seek the cooperation of foreign governments to recover much of this stolen wealth that had been smuggled out of Iraq. The President highlighted the situation in the Southern Iraqi city of Basra, which has been disrupted by protests for the past 18 months. Although Basra is the oil capital of Iraq and its main port, its citizens live in squalid slums. They blame their plight squarely on political corruption. Indeed, Basra’s former Governor, Majid al-Nasrawi, fled the country after the Iraqi Integrity Commission opened a corruption investigation against him. Sadly, President Saleh’s  anti-corruption bill has little prospect of becoming law. Under the Iraqi constitution, power is vested in the Prime Minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi and his government, which comprises an uneasy coalition of pro-Western and pro-Iranian factions.

Al-Kadhimi is seen as more pro-Washington than pro-Tehran, which may prove to be his Achilles’ heel. He is shrewd and secular and his appointment as prime minister reflected the growing public contempt for the Iranian mullahs’ meddling in Iraq. But unlike previous Iraqi leaders such as al-Maliki, Khadimi has no political party he can call on for support in times of trouble. Iraq’s dire financial position means that he has to rely on Washington for economic support, warning his MPs that if they fail to back his reform package, the Biden Administration may pull the plug on future funding.

But Kadhimi’s job has not become any easier by the fact that years of mismanagement and corruption made Iraq a soft target for Tehran, which quickly took control of the plethora of Shi’ia militias, training, arming and moulding over 150,000 of them into the so-called Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). Following their role in helping to defeat ISIS,  PMF networks have developed into significant security, political and economic factions that compete for power in the Iraqi state. Their representatives in the country’s parliament owe their direct allegiance to the theocratic regime in Tehran and Kadhimi cannot afford to alienate them. But the PMF’s role in shooting dead hundreds of unarmed civilians who took part in anti-government protests have led to repeated demands for Iran and its proxies to be expelled from Iraq.

Until Iraqis can prise loose the mullahs’ grip and take back control of their own affairs, al-Kadhimi will have to walk a political tightrope. If he can secure US, EU and UN support for major reform, he may have a chance to implement some changes, even including President Saleh’s anti-corruption legislation. His key priorities should be drastically to reform the civil service, firing corrupt incompetents and replacing them with trained personnel. He should allocate a fixed percentage of oil revenues for reconstruction projects and ensure that rebuilding Iraq is taken out of the hands of corrupt ministries and supervised by a statutory independent Reconstruction Board. He should create a fiscal police force with wide powers of investigation and arrest and set up special anti-corruption courts and he should overhaul the judiciary and introduce strict competence and probity criteria that cannot be interfered with by powerful politicians. Such reforms would only scrape the surface, but might set Iraq and its people back on a path to future prosperity after decades of war and corruption.