Iraq is not an electoral d emocracy. Although it has conducted meaningful elections, political participation and decision-making in the country remain seriously impaired by sectarian and insurgent violence, widespread corruption, and the influence of foreign powers. Under the constitution, the president and two vice presidents are elected by the parliament and appoint the prime minister, who is nominated by the largest parliamentary bloc. Elections are held every four years. The prime minister forms a cabinet and runs the executive functions of the state. The parliament consists of a 325-seat lower house, the Council of Representatives, and a still-unformed upper house, the Federal Council, which would represent provincial interests. Political parties representing a wide range of viewpoints operate without legal restrictions, but the Baath party is officially banned. The Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq (IECI), whose nine-member board was selected by a UN advisory committee, has sole responsibility for administering elections.
Home to one-fifth of the country’s population, the autonomous Kurdish region constitutes a distinct polity within Iraq, with its own flag, military units, and language. The 111-seat regional legislature remains dominated by the allied PUK and KDP, despite the presence of the new Gorran opposition bloc following 2009 elections. The Kurdish region’s political leaders profess their commitment to remaining part of a federal Iraqi state, but Kurdish security forces maintain a de facto border with the rest of Iraq, Iraqi Arabs are often treated as foreigners, and the regional government frequently acts in its own interest over Baghdad’s objections.
Iraq is plagued by pervasive corruption at all levels of government. A national Integrity Commission is tasked with fighting corruption, but it conducts its investigations in secret and does not publish its findings until the courts have issued final decisions. It issued 433 warrants in the first two months of 2010 alone, well outpacing the 972 issued in all of 2009. In March, another 356 defendants were charged with stealing a total of $40 billion. However, the overwhelming majority of offenders enjoy impunity, largely because of an amnesty law allowing ministers to intervene to dismiss charges. As a result, cases are generally brought against low- and mid-ranking officials; the Commission lost its most high profile case against the former trade minister this year. However, the Commission’s work has recently gained momentum, as it led to 982 convictions in the first half of 2010, compared with only 257 in 2009. In July 2010, officials at the Central Bank allegedly burned the records of their own inspector general’s office—and blamed the destruction on a terrorist attack—to destroy evidence in a sensitive corruption case. Also in July, Kurdish officials were accused of receiving large kickbacks to sell oil to Iran in violation of both international sanctions and the Iraqi constitution. Several U.S. military officials were convicted during 2010 for corruption in Iraq, including taking bribes from defense contractors and embezzlement. Recruits allegedly pay bribes as high as $5,000 to enter the Iraqi security forces, and reports suggest that ordinary citizens must resort to bribery to accomplish simple bureaucratic tasks like obtaining vehicle license plates. Iraq was ranked 175 out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of expression is protected by the constitution and generally respected by the authorities. However, it has been seriously impeded by sectarian tensions and fear of violent reprisals. Over a dozen private television stations are in operation, and major Arab satellite stations are easily accessible. More than 150 print publications have been established since 2003 and are allowed to function without significant government interference. Internet access is not currently restricted.Legislation passed in 2006 criminalized the ridicule of public officials, who often file suits when journalists report on corruption allegations. Iraq’s media regulatory body, the Communication and Media Commission, cracked down on journalists in the run-up to the 2010 parliamentary elections by denying journalists accreditation and suing media that criticized government officials. Journalists regularly face intimidation and harassment from security forces at checkpoints and as they report from the field.
Violent retribution against journalists has hindered their ability to report widely and objectively. Offices of the Dubai-based satellite television station Al-Arabiya were bombed in July 2010, killing six people and injuring 16. In August, police allegedly fired on the home of the head of the Iraqi Press Agency and then searched his house without a warrant. Also in August, a magazine editor was kidnapped and killed. Two television presenters were killed in as many days in September. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) estimates that over 140 journalists have been killed since the beginning of the war, while Reporters Without Borders (RSF) puts the number closer to 230. Media outlets must give the government a list of all their employees, putting them in greater danger.
Journalists previously operated more freely in the Kurdish region, but conditions there deteriorated in 2010. A 2008 press law imposes fines for creating instability, spreading fear or intimidation, causing harm to people, or violating religious beliefs. Journalists who offend local officials and top party leaders or expose high-level corruption remain subject to physical attacks, arbitrary detention, and harassment. Critical or opposition journalists were the targets of several bomb attacks in March, April, and May, and faced nearly constant violence, harassment, and intimidation by Kurdish security forces throughout the year. In August, the KDP brought a billion-dollar lawsuit against a newspaper that reported on Kurdish officials’ alleged oil smuggling to Iran.
Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the constitution, and religious institutions are allowed to operate with little formal oversight. However, all religious communities in Iraq have been threatened by sectarian violence. Estimates of the Christian population that has sought safety abroad since 2003 range from 250,000 to 500,000. Religious and ethnic minorities in northern Iraq—including Turkmens, Arabs, Christians, and Shabaks—have reported instances of discrimination and harassment by Kurdish authorities,though a number have fled to the Kurdish-controlled region due to its relative security.Formerly mixed areas are now much more homogeneous, and terrorist attacks continue to be directed toward sectarian targets.
Academic institutions operate in a highly politicized and insecure environment. Hundreds of professors were killed during the peak of sectarian and insurgent violence, and many more stopped working or fled the country, though there have been some reports of scholars returning to their jobs following security improvements in the last several years.
Rights to freedom of assembly and association are recognized by the constitution and generally respected in practice. The constitution guarantees these rights “in a way that does not violate public order and morality.” Domestic and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are able to operate without legal restrictions, although safety concerns severely limit their activities in many areas. A law passed in January 2010 allows NGOs to seek funding without government approval, requires the government to provide specific cause for denying an NGO’s registration, removes criminal penalties for being a member of an improperly registered NGO, and requires a court order to suspend NGO activities.
The constitution provides for the right to form and join trade unions. Union activity has flourished in nearly all industries since 2003, and strikes have not beenuncommon. However, Iraq’s 1987 labor law remains in effect, prohibiting unionization in the public sector, and a 2005 decree gave authorities the power to seize all union funds and prevent their disbursal. Labor groups reported that a union at a public electricity plant in Basra was forcibly shut down by the police in July 2010.
Judicial independence is guaranteed in the constitution.The Higher Judicial Council—headed by the chief judge of the Federal Supreme Court and composed of Iraq’s 17 chief appellate judges and several judges from the Federal Court of Cassation—has administrative authority over the court system. In practice, however, judges have come under immense political and sectarian pressure and have been largely unable to pursue cases involving organized crime, corruption, and militia activity, even when presented with overwhelming evidence. Iraqi citizens often turn to local militias and religious groups to dispense justice rather than seeking redress with official law enforcement bodies that are seen as corrupt or ineffective.
The criminal procedure code and the constitution prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention, though both practices are common in security-related cases. Theconstitution also prohibits all forms of torture and inhumane treatment and affords victims the right to compensation, but there are few effective safeguards in place. A previously unknown detention facility under the direct control of the prime minister’s office was uncovered by a U.S. newspaper in 2010, and 430 prisoners—mostly Sunnis accused of terrorism—were reportedly being held there without any legal rights. The detainees, who were subsequently transferred to legitimate facilities, made credible allegations of systematic sexual, physical, and psychological abuse. While KRG laws also prohibit inhumane treatment, it is widely acknowledged that Kurdish security forces practice illegal detention and questionable interrogation tactics.Detainees in U.S. custody have also experienced torture and mistreatment, though by 2010 U.S. forces no longer directly held detainees in Iraq.
The constitution promises women equal rights under the law, though in practice they face various forms of legal and societal discrimination. Women are guaranteed 25 percent of the seats in the legislature, and their participation in public life has increased in recent years. While they still face serious social pressure and restrictions, women have also returned in larger numbers to jobs and universities. Women enjoy somewhat greater legal protections and social freedoms in the Kurdish region, but their political power is limited. Moreover, domestic abuse and so-called honor killings remain serious problems both in the Kurdish region and across the country. The laws applicable outside the Kurdish region offer leniency to the perpetrators of honor killings. In July 2010, Kurdish religious leaders formally declared that female genital mutilation (FGM) was un-Islamic, but they stopped short of calling for a ban. Advocacy groups claim that more than 50 percent of Kurdish teenage girls are victims of FGM. The U.S. State Department placed Iraq on the Tier 2 Watch List in its 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report, noting problems including the trafficking and sexual exploitation of women from impoverished and displaced Iraqi families, and the abuse of foreign men and women who are recruited to work in Iraq.