The war on corruption has been fought on many fronts, internationally and domestically, with differing degrees of success. The existing commentary on corruption in Iraq is extensive but some studies have focused on post-2003 Iraq without accounting for the roots of corruption that extend back to the Ba’athist regime.[1] On the contrary, other studies have attributed corruption in Iraq to several factors, including the legacy of Saddam’s regime, the widespread incentives for corruption, and the weaknesses of state institutions.[2]

Instead of delving into the controversies of defining corruption, measuring its scale, and identifying its multifaceted nature, this paper attempts to survey the experiences of other countries in their fight against corruption. This paper acknowledges that each country has unique cultural, economic, and political features, therefore, it is not productive to replicate the experiences of other countries without modifications that address the uniqueness of the country of interest. Therefore, this paper will highlight the framework that successful efforts relied on in their war on corruption. Empirical studies have highlighted three crucial prerequisites for any successful anti-corruption effort: strong political will; efforts to consolidate institutions; and limit incentives and opportunities for corruption. Such a framework should guide any efforts to curb corruption in Iraq.

The Feasibility of Reform: The Case of Iraq

It is well known that Saddam’s regime constructed a complex network that governed the Iraqi state and turned it into a family business. His cousin Ali Hasan al-Majid; his half-brother Watban Ibrahim; his son Qusay; and others that had blood ties to Saddam dominated the Iraqi state and represented the power base of the regime.[3] This network mobilized tribal connections, security services, the army and the party to perpetuate the regime.[4] Saddam headed this kleptocratic network and controlled all centers of power. Therefore, corruption met Sarah Chayes’ definition of being “the operating system of sophisticated networks.”[5]

Despite many domestic initiatives to remove this network, the regime succeeded in maintaining its role. The most challenging initiative was the 1991 uprising, when Saddam temporarily lost control over the Southern and Northern regions of Iraq. However, this initiative failed to dismantle Saddam’s kleptocratic network.[6] Therefore, such networks continued the redistribution of “resources to its supporters while repressing its opponents.”[7] As a result, the feasibility of reform did not exist.

The physical structure of the Ba’athist regime was destroyed in 2003. However, the Ba’athists maintained a role. The de-Ba’athification decree indicated that they would not have a political future in post-2003 Iraq. Therefore, they worked on destroying this new political system by adopting several tactics, including terrorism and mobilizing the rhetoric of marginalization of certain ethnic and sectarian groups to recruit individuals into their underground network.

The links between Ba’athists and terrorists evolved since 2003 and were evident in all the different stages of terrorism in Iraq. It started with the establishment of various terrorist groups, such as the Naqshabandi Order led by Izzat Al-Douri, deputy to Saddam, and later merged with other radical extremist movements in Iraq.[8] There are many other factors that enabled Ba’athists to maintain their role, such as regional power centers that supported any efforts to thwart the installation of an effective democratic system, the success of which was perceived as an existential threat to their authoritarian regimes.

The political vacuum that was created by the removal of dictatorship in 2003 enabled many domestic actors with regional and international backing to establish new networks. However, these networks do not necessarily share Ba’athist goals because the perseverance of the new political arrangement is a necessity for their existence. But, these networks adopted several tactics for competition, such as mobilizing ethno-sectarian rhetoric, deliberately obstructing the government’s ability to function, and persistently attacking the government’s legitimacy in order to maximize their financial, economic, and political gains.

The divergence of these networks in their objectives prevented the dominance of any network. Also, these networks do not have an obvious physical structure that could be identified because they operate behind the scenes. Therefore, there is a window of opportunity for reform since no network succeeded in dominating the Iraqi state, but combating these networks is much more challenging given their clandestine nature. The failure of anti-corruption efforts since 2003 could be attributed to various factors, including the quota system (muhasasa), which protected corrupt officials, the lack of realistic solutions, and lack of political will. However, genuine reforms are feasible, but are very challenging in post-2003 Iraq.

The necessity of reform:

There are many reasons that necessitate the prioritization of the war on corruption in Iraq:

First, the financial crisis resulted from the substantial fall in the price of oil from $115 a barrel to less than $40 a barrel. Despite the increase in oil production to nearly 4 million barrels per day from fields administrated by the central government[9], it is still not adequate to cover the previous levels of governmental spending, which proved to be unsustainable. Also, it necessitated escaping the dependence on oil and the diversification of the economy, which are not conceivable without addressing the problem of corruption first in order to establish the appropriate environment for such projects.

Second, the “causal link” between corruption and terrorism, where corruption drives people to such extremes.[10] Chayes provided four reasons that explain such causal link, which are “the humiliation inflicted on victims; their lack or recourse; the structure and sophistication of corrupt networks; and the truly colossal sums being stolen.”[11] This link is evident in the Iraqi case, where corruption has contributed to the advance of ISIS in Iraq.[12]  This is exemplified in the rise of inexperienced generals to senior positions in the Iraqi Armed Forces; the buying of bad equipment by corrupt procurement processes; and the employment of “ghost soldiers.”[13] Therefore, the majority of Iraqis (71%) found it very important to fight corruption to prevent the return of ISIS, according to a national survey conducted by the National Democratic Institute (NDI).[14]

Third, the popular anger over corruption and its expansion. A survey conducted in Baghdad by the Iraqi Commission of Integrity in 2014 found that “7% of users said they had paid a bribe to a public official there.”[15] In contrast to the 2013 Transparency International Global Corruption Barometer, which found that “29% of Iraqi adults reported having paid a bribe to at least one of eight services in the past 12 months.”[16]  This translated into popular demonstrations, which “demanded accountability for corruption and the replacement of the entire cabinet with nonpolitical technocrat.”[17] Furthermore, religious institutions has voiced their criticism over the corrupt practices and demanded reforms frequently. Such general rejection highlighted the significance of launching anti-corruption efforts to enhance the legitimacy of government.

Fourth, international obligations as presented by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) under the Stand-By Arrangement (SBA) for Iraq for US$5.34 billion, which was approved on July 7, 2016. This arrangement was approved with the aim of supporting Iraq’s economic reform including measures to curb corruption. Also, the adoption of the United Nation Convention against Corruption (UNCAC). Obligations towards such international agreements against corruption necessitate progress in the area of fighting corruption to enhance Iraq’s international reputation and motivate foreign investment into the economy.

To sum up, there is no doubt that the war on corruption is necessary to Iraq’s development and the prosperity of Iraqis. As highlighted above, there are many reasons that require the prioritization of the war on corruption, including the financial crisis, the war on terrorism, popular anger, and international obligations. The political scene in Iraq has witnessed several initiatives for combating corruption. However, developing a framework for tackling corruption based on the experiences of other countries is crucial to ensure the effectiveness of such initiatives.

Anti-corruption framework

Empirical studies have focused on the record of anti-corruption efforts in certain countries, highlighting the extent of anti-corruption measures and their efficacy.  The success of anti-corruption efforts require strong political will to eradicate corruption; efforts to establish or consolidate institutions that implement anti-corruption measures; and parallel efforts to reduce and limit both incentives and opportunities for corruption. Such a framework should be constructed and maintained to ensure the successes of anti-corruption efforts.

Political Will

There is near consensus among analysts and practitioners that political will is a prerequisite for the success of any efforts to combat corruption, as evident in the anti-corruption efforts in Singapore, which achieved the status of the “least corrupt of the Asian countries,” after having corruption as “a way of life.”[18] The process was initiated by a committed political will that saw corruption as a huge obstacle against the achievement of their developmental goals.[19]

It is difficult to measure political will because anti-corruption efforts might be mobilized as rhetoric to enhance the government legitimacy or target political opponents, rather than genuine will to curb corruption. The most important indicator is the extent of the political will, whether it is the expression of an individual, several elites, or a powerful political coalition. Georgia’s anti-corruption efforts highlighted the significance of having a strong coalition to ensure successful passage and implementation of reform packages, where a “small but strong team in the executive branch, united by a common vision and supported by a compliant parliament and judiciary, drove the reform process.”[20]

The second important indicator is the quality of their efforts. In other words, the tools that a committed politician will mobilize to tackle corruption. These tools could be observed to evaluate political will, as evident in Singapore, such as the impartial targeting of corrupt individuals, the empowerment of anti-corruption legislation and agencies, the use of information technology techniques in public administration, and the mobilization of media to highlight the severity of punishment.

All these measures are evident in the case of Singapore. First, political will was not limited to “small fish”, but extended to “big fish”, ensuring that “anyone found guilty of corruption must be punished.”[21] Second, legislation was enacted to empower the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) (an independent institution housed in the Prime Minister’s Office where its director is answerable only to the prime minister) to “arrest and search investigated persons and scrutinize the accounts of individuals working in the public and private sectors regardless of the positions they hold.”[22] Therefore, the CPIB has the ability to investigate “all suspected persons including the Prime Minister.”[23] However, it is very challenging to target powerful, corrupt elites even if there is an intent to do so. Therefore, it is necessary to have strong popular support that provides government a mandate to target the “biggest tigers” because the risk of attacking them might lead to dramatic political upheavals.[24] Third, technology advancements were applied to improve effectiveness of administration, such as the establishment of  the Inland Revenue Integrated System (IRIS) – an elaborated computer system program that allows all tax types to be dealt with in an integrated one-step service manner.[25] Fourth, changing people’s perceptions of corruption from “low risk, high reward” into “high risk, low reward” through the mobilization of media to convey this message.[26]

In some cases, political will might be weak or even absent. Therefore, it should be simulated by popular and international pressure. Passing reform packages requires the “strong role of civil society and citizens in initiating the process and in reinforcing political will when it is weakened.”[27] This is evident in the case of Mexico, where civil society through “direct advocacy with politicians and public pressure” ensured the passage of reforms and their implementation.[28] Also, international actors might through direct pressure or agreement pressure the passage of reforms, as in the case of Ukraine, where the EU – Ukraine association agreement required a “number of reforms before it comes into force, including … several anti-corruption reforms.”[29]

Prime Minister Al-Abadi launched several anti-corruption initiatives, such as the package of measures aimed at ending the sectarian based quota system.[30] However, such an ambitious agenda was challenged mainly by absence of a strong political coalition. This was evident in the parliamentary vote on November 2, which “declared that he was only to enact reforms in agreement with other political actors in parliament.”[31] Therefore, it is necessary to mobilize popular and international pressure and establish a network of supporters for reform initiatives.

Consolidating Institutions 

Having an effective anti-corruption agency (ACA) is crucial for the success of any efforts to eradicate corruption. This agency should have a clear mandate and backed by comprehensive anti-corruption laws. Also, it should be headed by a “political leader who is incorruptible.”[32] Also, institutional consolidation should be extended to include all the governmental agencies and departments. Iraq has many anti-corruption institutions. However, their performances are not satisfactory because they lack resources and capacity to enforce the rules vigorously and address systematic problems.

The EU Anti-Corruption Report highlighted several requirements to ensure the effectiveness of anti-corruption agencies, such as guarantees of independence and absence of political interference; merit based selection and promotion of staff; collaboration with other institutions; swift access to databases and intelligence; provision of necessary resources and skills; and building the capacity of law enforcement, prosecution and judiciary.[33]

Georgia met these requirements first as a basis for their efforts to limit corruption. President Shevardnadze established a 12-member coordinating council chaired by the president and an anticorruption bureau. Despite an initial period of ineffectiveness, these reforms served as “the foundation under which many of the reforms … were built.”[34] The consolidation of institutions was based on a sectoral approach, started by “focusing on tax collection and the prosecution of criminal and corrupt officials”[35] and extended to other sectors. However, the consolidation of institutions varies from a country to another based on each country’s characteristics. Therefore, the Iraqi government should address the root causes behind the lack of effectiveness of anti-corruption agencies and other governmental agencies.

Limiting Incentives and Opportunities

Limiting opportunities might be the most challenging task and requires a sectoral approach based on regular review of each sector’s procedures to detect opportunities of corruption and eliminate them. Therefore, it is necessary to identify these opportunities before addressing corruption. In other words, understanding the causes and the processes of corruption is a prerequisite for tailoring effective remedies. For example, the PAP government in Singapore identified low salaries, ample opportunities, and weak punishments as the main drivers for corruption and addressed these root causes accordingly. The EU report also recommend indicating the most vulnerable sectors to corruption to tailor effective, targeted solutions. Furthermore, it is necessary to tackle the problem of “excessive regulation” combined with high level of “discretion” because it generates a lot of opportunities for corruption, as evident in the case of Singapore.[36]

Limiting incentives requires parallel efforts that enhance the working conditions and change the perception of corruption. It is necessary to increase the scale and extent of punishment towards corrupt practices in order to change domestic perceptions of corruption.[37] Also, civil servants should be paid sufficient salaries that ensure a good standard of living. Otherwise, employees will either resort to corruption, or abandon their jobs to join the private sector.

The EU report on anti-corruption efforts recommends specifying “risk areas” that are particularly vulnerable to corruption and require targeted responses.[38] The report found that “discretionary powers … not matched by a corresponding level of accountability and control mechanism” is the main indicator to detect risk of corruption.[39] Therefore, the Iraqi government should adopt and implement programs that limit opportunities and incentives of corruption in each sector. This could be done by minimizing and digitalizing bureaucratic procedures to limit civil servants’ discretion and increase oversight over them.

Conclusion and Recommendations

The success of any effort to eradicate corruption relies on its effectiveness in limiting incentives and opportunities. However, the latter is not conceivable without strong political will and an effective anti-corruption agency. These three pillars are not independent from each other, but they are intertwined as evident in the cases highlighted by this paper. Corruption has been proven to be a deep-rooted, multifaceted problem that requires comprehensive strategies. Iraq should benefit from the experiences of other countries that have a longer history in the war on corruption. Rather than attempting to replicate other countries’ experiences, it is necessary to understand the framework they follow in addressing corruption. This paper demonstrated the significance of stimulating political will, consolidating anti-corruption agencies, and limiting incentives and opportunities. This paper recommends the following to ensure the implication of this framework in Iraq:

  1. Prioritizing the war on corruption, given its adverse role on the security and prosperity of Iraqis.
  2. Establishing a strong political coalition that supports the war on corruption and maintaining this coalition by popular and international pressure.
  3. Establishing an anti-corruption coordinating council chaired by the Prime Minister since it has a popular mandate though elections, and he is in charge of planning and implementing the Iraqi state policies.
    1. This council should meet the EU requirement of an effective anti-corruption agency.
    2. This council should be tasked with the following missions:
      1. Consolidating the current anti-corruption agencies by proposing draft legislation to the Iraqi Parliament.
      2. Developing a comprehensive strategy to fight corruption and guidelines for its implementation.
  • Highlighting risk areas to develop executive programs that limit incentives and opportunities for corruption by:
    1. Increasing penalties for corrupt practices coupled with impartial implementation, as well as publicizing these penalties.
    2. Using the technological advances to minimize and digitize bureaucratic procedures.

The adoption of this framework will be a first step towards ensuring a successful anti-corruption effort. The Coordinating Council for Combating Corruption, chaired by the secretary general of the Council of Ministers, could serve as a platform to facilitate the implementation of this framework. Further research should be done to explore the forms of corruption in each sector in Iraq and develop effective and practical remedies based on the suggested framework.


[1]. For example, Mieczyslaw P. Boduszynski, “Iraq’s Year of Rage,” Journal of Democracy 27 (4), 110 – 124. The study rightly attributed the protest movement to the corrupt practices of post-2003, especially Muhasasa (quotas). However, it fails to investigate the connection between the Ba’athist regime and corruption in Iraq.

[2]. Coralie Pring, “Iraq: Overview of Corruption and Anti-corruption,” Transparency International, Mar 20, 2015.

[3].Central Intelligence Agency, “Iraq’s Tikritis: Power Base of Saddam Husayan” Central Intelligence Agency, December 28, 2011.

[4]. Andrew Cockburn and Patrick Cockburn, Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein, 72.

[5]. Sarah Chayes, “The Structure of Corruption: A Systemic Analysis Using Eurasian Cases,” Carnigie Endowment for International Peace, June 2016, 1.

[6]. Faleh Abd Al-Jabbar, “Why the uprisings failed,” Middle East Report 176 (1992): 2-14.

[7]. Colralie Pring, “Iraq: Overview of Corruption and Anti-corruption,” 3.

[8]. Andrew Hosken, Empire of fear: Inside the Islamic state. Oneworld Publications, 2015.

[9]. Aref Mohammed, “Iraq’s Oil Exports in June Near May Level, Oil Minister Says” Reuters, June 22, 2017,

[10]. Sarah Chayes, “Corruptoin and Terrorism: The Causal Link” 3.

[11]. Ibid.

[12]. Coralie Ping, “Iraq: Overview of Corruption and Anti-Corruption”, 5.

[13]. Ibid.

[14]. National Democratic Institute, “Improved Security Provides Opening for Cooperation,” June 7, 2017,

[15]. Coralie Ping, “Iraq: Overview of Corruption and Anti-Corruption,” 3.

[16]. Ibid.

[17]. Mieczysław P. Boduszyński, “Iraq’s Year of Rage,” Journal of Democracy 27, no 4(2016), 1.

[18]. Jon S.T. Quah, “Combating Corruption in Singapore: What Can Be learned?” Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management  9, no. 1 (2001), 29.

[19]. Ibid., 34.

[20]. The World Bank, “Fighting Corruption in Public Services: Chronicling Georgia’s Reforms,” The World Bank, 7

[21]. Quah, “Combating Corruption in Singapore”, 34.

[22]. Sam Choon-Yan, “Singaproe’s Experiences in Curbing Corruption and the Growth of the Underground Economy,”  56

[23] Ibid., 57.

[24]. Qiang Fang, “XI Jinping’s Anticorruption Campaign From A Historical Perspective,” Modern China Studies 24, no. 2 (2017), 134.

[25] Sam Choon-Yan, “Singapore’s Experiences in Curbing Corruption,”57.

[26] Ibid., 58.

[27]. Jackson Oldfield, “Overview of National Approaches to Anti-Corruption Packages,” Transparency International, 1.

[28]. Ibid.,  3.

[29]. Ibid., 5.

[30]. Loveday Morris and Mustafa Salim, “Iraqi Leader Wins Backing for Reforms but Walks a Dangerous Line,” The Washington Post, August 11, 2015, 1.

[31]. Kirk H. Sowell, “Abadi’s Failed Reforms,” Carnegie Endowment For International Peace, November 17, 2015.

[32]. Quah, “Combating Corruption in Singapore,” 34.

[33]. European Commission, “EU Anti-Corruption Report,” March 2, 2014,

[34]. The World Bank, “Fighting Corruption in Public Services,” 4.

[35]. Ibid, 6.

[36]. Quah, “Combating Corruption in Singapore,” 31.

[37]. Ibid.

[38]. European Commission, “EU Anti-Corruption Report,” 17.

[39]. Ibid.