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In protest-hit Iraq, parties cling to lucrative posts: AFP analysis

Even the country's top Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, has acknowledged it is time for change -- but the ruling elite begs to differ

AFP , Sunday 24 Nov 2019
Iraqi protesters
Iraqi protesters chant slogans during a demonstration in Baghdad's al-Rasheed street near al-Ahrar bridge on November 24, 2019. (Photo: AFP)
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While noisy protests rage on Iraq's streets, in the backrooms of power political leaders are quietly hashing out ways to keep their posts and the huge financial rewards they bring.

The demonstrations rocking the capital and Shia-majority south since early October are the biggest grassroots movement the country has seen since the 2003 US-led invasion that ended the Saddam Hussein regime.

Despite a death toll that has topped 350, the youth-led protests continue against the government of a country that anti-graft watchdog Transparency International ranks as the 12th most corrupt in the world.

Widespread anger over dismal public services and youth unemployment at 25 percent has fuelled the movement which demands nothing less than the ouster of the entire ruling class.

Even the country's top Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, has acknowledged it is time for change -- but the ruling elite begs to differ.

While Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi has announced a massive recruitment drive and a cabinet reshuffle to appease demonstrators, insiders say these steps are a smokescreen for the usual horsetrading between parties.

"They are still dividing up the pie as usual," a senior government source told AFP.

The pie is Iraq's bloated public sector, the country's largest employer by far, which is almost exclusively funded by the oil revenues of OPEC's second-biggest producer.

Since 2003, the public sector payroll has tripled and yearly spending on their wages has grown nine-fold to nearly $36 billion, according to a recent study by Iraqi analyst Ali Al-Mawlawi for the London School of Economics.

- Plush state posts -

In a nation with a badly underdeveloped private sector, working for the government means job security -- but often also an opportunity to make some illicit money on the side.

Officials are known to demand bribes of up to tens of thousands of dollars to provide state contracts or even just a signature on a public document -- or to arrange another lucrative post for a friend or relative.

In a country where one in five people lives below the poverty line according to the World Bank, the system dividing up the spoils has fueled the anger on the streets while, insiders say, politicians have responded with business as usual.

"Political parties refuse to leave the cabinet because they'll lose all their gains," a high-ranking member of the ruling coalition told AFP.

A leaked list of appointments to the cabinet and as directors-general in ministries revealed many relatives of the firebrand Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr and Hadi Al-Ameri, a pro-Iran paramilitary chief whose bloc makes up the second leg of the embattled government.

Ameri's brother, Faleh, was named the head of the foreign ministry's international organisations department, and his sister was also appointed within the same ministry.

Neither had previously held public office or diplomatic positions, according to an Iraqi diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity.

Moqtada Sadr, a main sponsor of the current government, initially called on Abdel Mahdi to resign but has since toned down his demands.

The cleric's cousin Mohammad Jaafar Sadr was recently named ambassador to London, and nephew Ahmed Sadr became first secretary, a post that typically requires "13 years in public service," according to the diplomat.

Political appointees are usually "incompetent and have never taken a decision," he added.

- 'Hardest nuts to crack' -

Amid the expected cabinet reshuffle, positions are already being "bought," the senior Iraqi official said.

"A political party gets alloted a certain ministry, then sells that ministerial position to the highest bidder," the official said, describing one transaction worth $20 million.

It's a familiar script: the candidate pays the party for the post, then uses it to usurp as much public money as possible, part of which pays off the debt.

The system is so entrenched, observers say, that there is little that Abdel Mahdi can do to stop it.

"Payroll reform is among the hardest nuts to crack because it undermines the vested interests of so many political actors and ordinary citizens," wrote Mawlawi.

At the same time, the parties jostling over ministerial positions cannot topple the premier, in large part because he has the backing of powerful neighbour Iran, said an analyst close to the political class.

"Ameri isn't satisfied with Abdel Mahdi, but he can't withdraw support in parliament because Iran has put a veto on this option," the analyst said.

Harith Hasan, a fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center, said Iraq's weak institutions "have allowed those actors to unaccountably contest the state's authority on many levels".

As long as there is no change, the protesters vow to stay on the streets.

"We only want one thing," said Mohammed Taleb, a 25-year-old demonstrator. "Accountability for the thieves and corrupt officials who destroyed Iraq."

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