Al-Muthanna: Anti-corruption protests or factional power struggle?

The New Region

Jul. 08, 2024 • 15 min read
Image of Al-Muthanna: Anti-corruption protests or factional power struggle? Members of Iraqi security forces look on as a demonstrator stands draped in a national flag durign a rally for International Women’s Day in Iraq’s southern city of Basra on March 8, 2021. (Photo by HUSSEIN FALEH/AFP)

Progress in Nineveh and Anbar highlights stark contrasts in southern governorates ravaged by corruption.

Muntadhar Jassim, 31, from Samawah in Al-Muthanna Governorate, is skeptical of the federal government's claims of "reforms and swift measures" to address the chronic deterioration in services, rising unemployment and poverty, and rampant corruption. Residents describe Samawah as a forgotten city where decay is widespread.

In response to calls from a cleric linked to Sayyid Ali al-Sistani's authority, which urged public protests and sit-ins to oust "corrupt officials," the government has announced additional financial allocations and dispatched committees to investigate stalled and failed projects.

Despite these actions, many believe these officials continue to protect their parties' privileges and enrich themselves at the expense of millions of citizens in this oil-rich nation, where poverty and the deterioration of health, education, and economic sectors persist.

Jassim, who works in a grocery store, expresses his frustration, saying, "We all want to rescue Al-Muthanna from its ruin. It is the poorest governorate in the country, and failure is evident everywhere. But what's happening is just political struggles among the quota-sharing parties that seek to achieve gains for themselves."

He questions the motives behind the current protests: "This government has only been in place for four months, and the governor says the funds allocated for projects have not yet arrived. So why are they protesting against it? Why didn’t they do the same with the previous government, which was steeped in corruption? According to deputies from Al-Muthanna, the previous governor faced 21 corruption charges in integrity courts."

Prime Minister Mohammed Shia' Al-Sudani has ordered the formation of several committees to investigate corruption allegations brought forward by Hamid Al-Yasiri, commander of the Ansar al-Marjaiya Brigade in the Popular Mobilization Forces.

Al-Yasiri has called for protests and a public sit-in on June 12, 2024, in front of the Al-Muthanna Governorate building. In his statement, he urged the masses to "expel the corrupt" and express that "the governor and the members of the provincial council do not represent them and work only for their parties."

Al-Yasiri has called on the House of Representatives and the Prime Minister's Office to appoint an "honest military governor" to manage Al-Muthanna’s affairs until a permanent solution is found.

He also urged the formation of a special committee from the Prime Minister's Office to oversee Samawah's budget allocations, monitor projects, and eliminate the 13 percent commission imposed by political parties on working companies.

Additionally, Al-Yasiri proposed forming a committee with representatives from all districts and sub-districts in the governorate. This committee would "genuinely represent the people" in negotiations with delegations from Baghdad and organize sit-ins in front of the offices of all parties responsible for the misuse of the governorate's funds since 2003.

Achievements without protests

On the evening of Saturday, June 8, activists gathered in Tammuz Square in central Samawah and issued a video statement expressing their support for the "Marjaiya Brigade Protests." They cited "the pervasive corruption in Al-Muthanna and other governorates, and the long-standing quota system within government offices" as their reasons.

A representative read the statement, warning any entity against suppressing the demonstrations or harming the protesters or their representatives, stating that "the response will be harsh."

Al-Yasiri's call and the activists' resolute message have galvanized many who are unhappy with the situation in the southern governorates, especially Al-Diwaniyah, Thi Qar, and Maysan. These areas have the highest unemployment and poverty rates in the country, with some regions experiencing poverty levels approaching or exceeding 50%, according to statistics released by the Ministry of Planning in 2020.

Some began to speak passionately about a "June Revolution," reminiscent of the "October Revolution" that began in Baghdad and several southern governorates in October 2019. Those protests, fueled by discontent over poor services and widespread corruption, ultimately led to the fall of Adil Abdul-Mahdi's government and the dissolution of provincial councils.

However, the momentum among those outraged by corruption in the southern regions dissipated on June 9. Hamid Al-Yasiri, commander of the Ansar al-Marjaiya Brigade, announced a postponement of the planned demonstrations and sit-in. This decision followed a meeting in Baghdad with a delegation from Al-Muthanna, including Al-Yasiri and twenty other representatives, and the Prime Minister. The delegation achieved six significant concessions, which Al-Yasiri labeled as "substantial."

The delegation's achievements included the establishment of a committee from the Prime Minister's Office to oversee all projects in Samawah, effectively stripping the governor and provincial council members of their control over funds. Protest representatives were given a role in supervising the implementation of the governorate’s projects as a supportive and monitoring body.

Furthermore, a new committee, led by the chairman of the Integrity Commission and the Audit Bureau, was tasked with investigating corruption and the misuse of public funds in Samawah since 2003. Citizens were encouraged to submit corruption files to this committee through their local protest representatives. The committee committed to regular meetings with the representatives of the protestors to ensure transparency and accountability in exposing corruption.

Al-Yasiri reported that a petition was presented to several MPs from Al-Muthanna Governorate, including MP Saad Awad Al-Tobi, urging a vote of no confidence against the governor and the provincial council due to their misconduct with companies and contractors. He announced securing IQD 37 billion from the Prime Minister's Office, which will be managed by a committee of engineers to implement service projects suggested by the popular protest committee, ensuring no involvement from the governor or provincial council.

He also emphasized the closure of all "economic offices" associated with political parties and instructed the National Security Agency and Intelligence Service to monitor and report any such offices in Samawah. The ruling Islamic Shia parties have been implicated in establishing these offices to allocate projects to their affiliated companies, resulting in numerous failed, stalled, or fictitious projects over the past two decades. This corruption has led to the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars, enriching party leaders and officials at the expense of public funds.

Al-Yasiri emphasized his demand that the Prime Minister's committees address issues in all deprived provinces and prevent governors and provincial councils from managing funds.

Prime Minister Mohammed Shia' Al-Sudani echoed Al-Yasiri's concerns. In a Facebook statement following a meeting with the "Al-Muthanna delegation," Al-Sudani announced the formation of a committee led by the chairman of the Integrity Commission and the Audit Bureau. This committee is tasked with visiting the governorate, investigating reports of corruption and waste of public funds, and referring cases for further auditing. Should any misconduct be verified, the responsible parties will face legal proceedings.

Additionally, Al-Sudani ordered a technical committee, led by the chief of the Engineering Effort Team and the Follow-up Team, to visit Al-Muthanna and assess the implementation of service projects. He also directed the Ministry of Education to address the handover of completed schools that have been delayed due to administrative and legal issues.

On the same day, the Prime Minister held a meeting with a delegation from Al-Muthanna's local government, which included Governor Mohannad Al-Atabi and Provincial Council Chairman Ahmed Mohsen Mohammed Al-Durayul. Al-Durayul remarked that the recent unrest and calls for protests have created a positive momentum for change, demonstrating that citizens are responsibly advocating for their rights and the well-being of their families.

He admitted that Al-Muthanna has endured significant deprivation and pervasive corruption. Al-Durayul expressed strong support for the President's initiative to establish specialized committees to investigate both current and past corruption cases. He said that the move is crucial for achieving justice and reclaiming the funds that rightfully belong to the people of Al-Muthanna.

On June 10, the Integrity Commission initiated a campaign to address illicit enrichment and illegal gains in Al-Muthanna. The campaign targets governors, local council leaders, members, and both current and former officials within the governorate. Citizens were urged to report any suspected corruption.

Social media has since been flooded with accounts from citizens detailing the rapid wealth accumulation of officials in the ruling parties and their relatives. These stories highlight the acquisition of houses, farms, properties, and modern cars, which far exceed what could be afforded through their official salaries or legitimate trade, even over many years.


Iraq's poorest governorate

Al-Diwaniyah Governorate, covering 51,000 square kilometers, is the second-largest by area but has a population of less than one million, making it the least populated, according to the Ministry of Planning. It is also the poorest governorate, with a poverty rate of around 52%.

In 2023, the federal government allocated 303 billion dinars (US$232 million) from the general budget and an additional 150 billion dinars from the Reconstruction Fund for the Poorest Areas. However, for 2024, the allocation was significantly reduced to just 54 billion dinars, along with 150 billion dinars from the Reconstruction Fund. The local government has deemed this insufficient to meet the governorate's numerous needs.

Ahmed Mohsen Durayul, chairman of the Al-Muthanna Provincial Council, claimed that the 2024 funds are inadequate given the population's needs, leading to potential delays in some projects. This sentiment is echoed by Rashid Mahmoud Al-Ajajibi, economic affairs advisor to the Al-Muthanna governor, who noted, "The local government, being only four months old, will struggle with the budget cuts, which will severely impact service delivery and place them in a challenging position with the citizens."

He highlighted that Al-Muthanna faces a severe shortage of services, widespread unemployment, and deep poverty. "The funds allocated for 2024 cover only a quarter of the planned project costs, which is far from sufficient."

MP Mohammed Rasool Al-Rumaithi, a member of the Security and Defense Committee, noted that successive governments since the previous regime have treated Al-Muthanna as a "secondary governorate" due to its low population. He explained that political parties and blocs are more competitive in governorates with larger populations and more significant representation in the Council of Representatives, as well as higher financial revenues.

He explained: "Al-Muthanna struggles with a small population of less than one million, represented by only seven members in the Council. Additionally, it lacks significant revenue sources, with no border crossings, airports, shrines, factories, or major agricultural activities."

Activists and political analysts attribute Al-Muthanna's struggles to extensive corruption. Moussa Rahmatallah, leader of the Iraqi Promise Movement, characterizes the governorate's condition as "dire," citing neglect from both central and local authorities. He highlights "pervasive corruption within government institutions" as the key factor undermining public confidence in their leaders. Rahmatallah claims that "powerful entities are behind all the financial mismanagement and corruption plaguing the governorate."

He pointed out that government institutions have "devolved into marketplaces where contracts are bought by influential local figures." He accused political forces within the provincial council of engaging in political quotas, noting the consistent absence of council members. He also criticized Al-Muthanna’s representatives in the national Council of Representatives, stating that they "have no oversight role and have shown no real opposition or initiative to curb the exploitation of state institutions for personal gain."

Activist Hussein Al-Azmawi warns that Samawah and other cities are "on the brink," with mounting calls for public protests driven by "a lack of services and the dire living conditions." He predicts that if no reform movements are initiated, other governorates might soon experience similar protests.

He pointed out the disparity in development across Iraq, saying, "While the capital Baghdad and some governorates witness the launch of service projects, albeit with corruption, regions like Al-Muthanna, Al-Diwaniyah, Maysan, and Babylon suffer from a severe lack of basic services and living conditions, including housing, employment, and essential services. Despite receiving allocations, funds are often squandered on projects that either stall or quickly fail."

He continued, "Provincial councils face numerous challenges, the most significant being their lack of autonomy. Major decisions, including the appointments of department heads, administrative unit chiefs, and even governors, are made centrally in political leadership meetings, such as those conducted by the Coordination Framework."

For two decades, provincial councils have fallen short in genuinely representing their constituents, addressing their needs, and fulfilling their aspirations. This failure is largely attributed to low voter turnout, particularly in the most recent elections held in late 2023. As a result, many council members prioritize expanding their electoral base by leveraging the privileges of their positions rather than serving the public interest.

Doubts and speculations

While the protest movement aimed at reforming Al-Muthanna has garnered popular support, there are also skeptics. A civil activist in Samawah, speaking on the condition of anonymity, described the situation as "just another charade in the guise of fighting corruption and implementing reforms."

The activist accused Hamid Al-Yasiri, head of the Marjaiya Brigade, of opportunism, alleging that Al-Yasiri had stayed silent about corruption under the previous government because he benefited from it. "Now he claims to champion the oppressed people of Al-Muthanna and urges them to demand their rights. Where was he a year ago, or even five years ago?"

He argued that Al-Yasiri's push for protests stems from "a rivalry with Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq over controlling the governorate's financial resources, aiming to transfer this control to the shrines, especially since his brigade is linked to them."

Analyst Ali Bashir notes that the increased financial allocations for Al-Muthanna in 2023, coupled with additional funds from the Poorest Governorates Fund, have piqued the interest of various parties and armed groups. "It seems they couldn't come to terms with the local government on the distribution of these funds, which has led to the threat of street protests."

Bashir highlighted that Al-Yasiri's recent statements emphasize the need for "external oversight of project implementation" beyond the local government. He questioned, "Where was Mr. Al-Yasiri when the previous local government was misappropriating the governorate's funds for the benefit of political parties and blocs?"

He suggested that the true nature of these protests will become evident in a few months, depending on the outcomes of the Prime Minister's committees addressing corruption. "If corruption persists as before, it will be clear that these protests and sit-ins were merely tactics to gain a share of the resources."

Civil activist Haider Hatim from Al-Muthanna accused the legislative and local authorities of deliberately keeping the populace "at the poverty line, perpetuating ignorance, backwardness, and belief in myths and superstitions."

He cited a widely circulated video on social media featuring Mohammed Rathi Sultan Al-Ziyadi, an MP from Al-Muthanna, responding to a resident of Albu Risha in Al-Khidr district who complained about a lack of teachers in a local school. Al-Ziyadi retorted, "You have Al-Khidr; what do you need teachers for? Give us Al-Khidr, and we'll give you ten teachers in exchange."

Al-Khidr is a revered figure in Islamic tradition, considered a prophet, with several shrines dedicated to him across the Arab world, including Iraq. In addition to a mosque and shrine named after him on the right bank of Mosul, which was destroyed by ISIS in 2014, there is another shrine in the Al-Khidr district of Al-Muthanna.

Activist Haider Hatim commented, "The MP's response to a citizen seeking a solution for the lack of teachers, suggesting that the religious shrine is more valuable than education, underscores the political class's strategy in Iraq to keep the population ignorant while they exploit the country's resources."

Corruption files and billion-dollar scandals

In late 2023, Prime Minister Mohammed Shia' Al-Sudani referred former Al-Muthanna governor Ahmed Menfi Joda to the Integrity Commission and Audit Bureau over corruption allegations and unexplained wealth. This referral followed previous attempts by Al-Muthanna MPs to dismiss the governor, which were unsuccessful. Despite the significant deterioration in the governorate and numerous failed projects, Joda was never convicted.

A retired government employee, A.H., remarked, "Despite the widespread devastation in the governorate and the failure of significant projects that squandered their funds, there has been no accountability. For twenty years, projects have failed, services have been poor, and funds have been stolen, yet none of the senior officials have been held accountable. They remain protected by parties that use religious and sectarian slogans to shield their corrupt members."


Activist Salam Kazem Habib asserts, "Officials are skilled in theft, employing various tactics to divert funds without facing justice. They open bank accounts, purchase properties domestically and internationally, and place them in the names of relatives or associates. They profess integrity while everyone knows they are corrupt."

Salam Kazem's claims were corroborated by the Integrity Commission when its Investigations Department in Al-Muthanna revealed on November 9, 2023, that the Samawah Municipality had significantly undervalued a property in a Musataha contract, well below market value. This arrangement benefited a citizen and involved a transfer to the brother of the former governor, Ahmed Menfi.

C:\Users\Duhok\Desktop\نبيريج تحرير\الفساد في محافظة المثنى\430668915_365072243155215_7756928897529875560_n.jpg

The Integrity Commission reported that the appraisal committee set the annual rental value of a prime commercial property, exceeding two thousand square meters, at just 9,900,000 dinars for a 25-year contract. Given the property's location, this valuation was significantly understated. As a result, the investigating judge has summoned the head and members of the appraisal committee.

This action came after reviewing the findings of the External Audit Division and the 2021 real estate registration regulations, which indicated that the actual annual rental value should have been 131,202,509 dinars. The undervaluation led to a loss of 3,280,062,500 dinars (US$2.5 million) in public funds.

The Integrity Commission uncovered significant violations in the awarding of four service projects by the Government Contracts Department in Al-Muthanna Governorate, with a total cost exceeding 51 billion dinars (almost US$40 million). The analysis and referral committees, along with the central review and approval committee in Al-Muthanna, awarded these projects to two local companies that had provided misleading information.

The projects in question included the rehabilitation of streets in the Al-Nasr First District in Samawah, the renovation of Al-Masbah Street connecting Martyrs Bridge and Stadium Bridge, and the paving of streets in the Umm Al-Khail area in Al-Rumaitha. Despite the two companies not meeting the required standards and conditions, they were still awarded the contracts, constituting a clear violation of government contract execution regulations.

On June 2, 2024, just days before the anticipated protests and sit-in in Al-Muthanna, the Integrity Commission uncovered violations in a contract for supplying specialized equipment to the water, sewage, and municipal directorates. The contract, worth 30 billion dinars, was signed with a general trading company.

The Directorate of Electricity Distribution rejected 11 cranes, costing over 2 billion dinars, due to their failure to meet the technical specifications set forth in the contract. Furthermore, the commission identified instances of manipulation, forgery, and embezzlement, including the fraudulent withdrawal of over 639 million dinars from the governorate's account at Al-Rasheed Bank in Samawah.

Equipment preparation contracts exposed 

Saeed Mousa, a former member of the Anti-Corruption Committee, highlighted the severe developmental lag in the southern provinces compared to other parts of the country, with poverty rates surpassing 50%. He described the situation as a "major catastrophe." Mousa questioned progress in regions like Samawa, Thi Qar, and Diwaniyah, pointing out that many projects exist only on paper and serve as channels for importing goods. He noted that numerous projects are stalled because they are awarded to economic entities tied to political parties and movements, draining the funds of both local and federal government administrations.

Murtadha Imad, a 54-year-old retired government employee from Thi Qar province, echoed these concerns. He said that his province, along with Diwaniyah, Babil, and Basra, requires initiatives similar to those proposed for Al-Muthanna to uncover corruption and the waste of public funds. Imad stated that a brief tour of these "disaster-stricken" provinces reveals the extent of the people's suffering: "There is a scarcity of job opportunities, severe poverty, agricultural decline due to water shortages and drought, industrial deterioration favoring importers, spread of slums due to rural-to-urban migration, massive failures in service delivery, and rampant issues of favoritism, corruption, and drug abuse."

He contrasted the conditions in these southern provinces with those in central and northern regions, such as Nineveh and Anbar. Despite being ravaged by ISIS, with entire areas destroyed, infrastructure obliterated, and a massive displacement of people and capital, these northern provinces have made significant strides in recovery. "In Nineveh and Anbar, we now see a resurgence with active competition in project launches and overall development," he observed.

Imad asserted that corruption is a widespread issue across Iraq, affecting everyone. However, he pointed out a key difference: "In the northern and central provinces, a substantial portion of funds is directed towards public benefit projects. In contrast, in the south, money is funneled into party coffers through economic offices and bogus companies, lining the pockets of officials who have amassed fortunes while their cities languish in decay." 

* This feature was produced in collaboration with the Network of Iraqi Reporters for Investigative Journalism (NIRIJ)

Profile picture of The New Region
Author The New Region


Get the latest updates delivered to your inbox.