After months of increasingly desperate and deadly protests, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi has finally conceded publicly that corruption might be at the heart of Basra’s shameful public health crisis.
His words will be welcomed, not least by the 60,000 people who so far have been hospitalised after drinking or washing in polluted water in the oil-rich province, which only last year was hailed by parliamentarians as the economic engine of Iraq.
But Mr Al Abadi’s pledge that the breakdown in public services in Basra will be investigated by Iraq’s Commission of Integrity must be followed swiftly by action, not only in Basra but throughout the entire country, if Iraq’s chaotic political system is to regain credibility and the trust of the people.
The Commission of Integrity already has its hands full. One has to look no further than its caseload to see the extent to which corruption has become endemic in Iraq and its political structure in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion and is still threatening to sabotage the country’s economic revival.
So far this month alone, its investigators have seized more than Dh18.47 million siphoned off by “creative accounting” from the budget of Al Anbar province health department, recovered property in Karbala province worth more than Dh9m that was transferred out of government ownership by forgers, stopped an attempt to steal 105 truckloads of timber, intercepted six containers of stolen medicines at the port of Umm Qasr and clawed back nearly Dh8m of government funds spirited from the accounts of the brick and asphalt factories in Al Muthanna province.
Iraq has lacked proper leadership since May’s parliamentary elections, which were mired in allegations of fraud and ballot-stuffing.
It took more than three months to ratify the results and now, with no one group emerging with an outright majority, Iraqi politics continues to be based on horse trading.
Corruption and sectarian divides go hand-in-hand and the continuing uncertainty – compounded this week by the surprise withdrawal from the race for the prime minister’s office of militia leader Hadi Al Amiri – cannot be allowed to taint Iraq’s chances of being free from either.
One bright light that flickered briefly this week was the nomination as candidate for the presidency of Barham Salih, the former prime minister of Iraq's Kurdistan regional government and former deputy prime minister of Iraq.
A prominent campaigner against corruption, he was seen as a candidate capable of bringing all Iraqis together. Now, it seems, his candidacy has been rejected.
In an article written for The National in January this year, Mr Salih welcomed the defeat of ISIS and the May elections as defining moments in the nation’s history, representing “an opportunity to reorient Iraq’s trajectory and propel the country towards prosperity and stability”.
Whoever takes the reins in Iraq, for the sake of the people of Basra and all Iraqis whose hopes and dreams have been on hold for the past 15 years, now is the moment to seize that opportunity.