Iraq is not an electoral democracy. Although it has conducted meaningful elections, the country remains under the influence of a foreign military presence and impairments caused by sectarian and insurgent violence.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 275-seat lower house, the Council of Representatives, and a still-unformed upper house, the Federal Council, which would represent provincial interests. The lower house is set to expand to 325 seats in 2010. Political parties representing a wide range of viewpoints operate without 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, and Iraqi Arabs are often treated as foreigners.
Iraq is plagued by pervasive corruption at all levels of government, and most offenders reportedly enjoy impunity. 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. In April 2009, an attempt by anticorruption authorities to arrest several Trade Ministry officials resulted in gunfire from ministry guards. A number of the suspects were ultimately arrested and sentenced to prison, and the trade minister, a member of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Da’wa party, was forced to resign in May and face charges himself. Recruits allegedly pay bribes to enter the security forces. Iraq was ranked 176 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2009 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. An Iraqi court in May 2009 ordered the German-based Iraqi news website Kitabat to pay a billion dinars ($850,000) in damages for an article accusing al-Maliki’s chief of staff of nepotism, though the prime minister then withdrew the lawsuit. In August, the Dubai-based satellite television station Al-Sharqiya was ordered to pay 100 million dinars for defamation against an Iraqi military spokesman, and Britain’s Guardian newspaper was instructed to pay 100 million dinars in November for an article in which al-Maliki was accused of increasing authoritarianism.
Violent retribution against journalists has hindered their ability to report widely and objectively. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the Iraq-based Journalistic Freedoms Observatory in June 2009 reported more than 70 cases of harassment and assault against journalists by Iraqi security forces since January. However, in an indication of the overall improvement in the security situation, CPJ documented only four murders of journalists in 2009, down from at least 11 in 2008 and more than 30 in each of the previous two years.Impunity for such murders remained the norm.
Journalists operate more freely in the Kurdish region, although 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. Kurdish broadcast media are dominated by the two main political parties, but independent print outlets and internet sites have arisen in recent years.
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 reach into the hundreds of thousands. 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. While sectarian violence declined in 2009, 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 two 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, and although safety concerns severely limit their activities in many areas, their situation improved along with general security conditions in 2009. The lack of a legal framework and registration system for NGOs also hinders their ability to function and attract donor funds.
The constitution provides for the right to form and join professional associations and unions. Union activity has flourished in nearly all industries since 2003, and strikes have not been uncommon. However, Iraq’s 1987 labor law remains in effect, prohibiting unionization in the public sector, and a 2005 decree by the ITG gave authorities the power to seize all union funds and prevent their disbursal. A pro-union parliamentary committee was subsequently established to revise the decree and advance International Labour Organization–compliant labor laws that were drafted in 2004, but these have yet to be enacted.
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.
Those accused of committing war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity fall under the jurisdiction of the Iraqi High Tribunal (IHT), previously known as the Iraq Special Tribunal. The IHT statute does not explicitly require that guilt be proven beyond a reasonable doubt and lacks adequate safeguards against self-incrimination. International observers noted numerous irregularities in the trial that culminated in the execution of former president Saddam Hussein in December 2006. Trials and sentencing procedures for a number of senior Hussein aides were ongoing in 2009.
The criminal procedure code and the constitution prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention, though both practices are common in security-related cases. The constitution prohibits all forms of torture and inhumane treatment and affords victims the right to compensation, but authorities have not established effective safeguards against the mistreatment of detainees. Allegations of torture by security services have been serious and widespread. While KRG laws similarly 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, although U.S. forces in 2009 were transferring their remaining detainees to Iraqi control. In September, the U.S. military closed Camp Bucca, once its largest detention facility in the country.
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 as the security situation has improved; in 2009, women entered the officer corps of the Iraqi police for the first time. While they still faced serious social pressure and restrictions, women 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, and though the laws in the Kurdish region are more favorable towards women, honor killings and suicides of women accused of honor crimes persist. The U.S. State Department placed Iraq on the Tier 2 Watch List in its 2009 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.