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A Bribe Here, a Bribe There

Why Iraq is Now the Most Corrupt Country on the Planet

by PATRICK COCKBURN

"I paid $800 to get my job,” says Ahmed Abdul, a technician working for Karada municipality in Baghdad. “People know this is wrong, but there is no way round it.”  In Iraq corruption is pervasive at every level.

“Corruption exists all over the world but is at its worst here,” laments Ateej Saleh Midhat, a 26-year-old employee of the state-owned Rafidain Bank. “In 2008 and 2009 it was difficult for any graduate to have a job without paying  $500 to $1,500 according to what kind of job it was. But what about the people who cannot afford to pay?”

Iraq is the world’s premier kleptomaniac state. According to Transparency International the only countries deemed more crooked than Iraq are Somalia and Myanmar, while Haiti and Afghanistan rank just behind. In contrast to Iraq, which enjoys significant oil revenues, none of these countries have much money to steal.

Iraqis resent paying a bribe for almost everything, but do not see what they can do about it. Nor will they believe that the government is serious in its claim to be clamping down on corruption until senior officials are punished. The first sign that this might be beginning to happen came last month when rhe former Minister of Trade Abdul Falah al-Sudani was arrested after the plane on which he was travelling to Dubai was dramatically turned round in mid-air and ordered to return to Baghdad. The Trade Ministry is known to Iraqis as “the Ministry of Corruption” because it administers the $6 billion food rationing system, which gives endless opportunities for making money through taking bribes from suppliers or sending tainted goods to the shops. The trade ministry scandal had already become very public when Mr al-Sudani’s guards shot it out at the ministry headquarters with police come to arrest ten officials who were able to escape through a back entrance during the gun battle. A video circulated from phone to phone in Baghdad shows Trade Ministry officials cavorting with prostitutes at a party.

The corruption most Iraqis run into is at a humbler level and usually means that the smallest bureaucratic hurdle can only be overcome with a bribe. For instance several years ago the government starting issuing special new passports which were supposedly more secure than the old. But since the quickest and sometimes the only way to obtain one is through a bribe, in which case few questions are asked, the new passports are even more insecure than their predecessors. The same is true of other identity documents. If  bribes are not paid to facilitate such transactions, officials subject their victim to bureaucratic harassment until they pay up.

It is not just that Iraqis object to paying off officials, but they are not sure they will get what they pay for. Laila Fadel Amr is a young housewife who graduated from a teachers’ training institute in 2005, but has never held a job since. “I didn’t want to join any of the Islamic parties,” she says. “And I didn’t want to pay my money for a job and then find that promises are not kept and I have paid for nothing.” If a job is obtained then the bribe-giver has to start taking backhanders to pay back money borrowed to make the original bribe.

Iraq has offered extraordinary opportunities for fraud since the fall of Saddam Hussein. War created enough confusion to divert attention from theft and made it difficult to check on what was really going on. In one notorious case in 2004-5 the government allocated $1.3 billion for weapons purchases. These were carried out by the then head of military procurement, Ziyad Cattan, a Polish-Iraqi who had once run a pizza parlor outside Bonn. The Minister of Defence was Hazem al-Shalaan who had been involved in property in a small way in London in the 1990s. Little military equipment was ever received by the Iraqi military aside from some 28-year-old Soviet helicopters from Poland, too antique to fly, and second hand vehicles deemed obsolete by the Pakistani army.

The violence in Iraq in 2004-7 made it highly dangerous to check if goods paid for by the government had ever been delivered or even existed. One instance now being investigated concerns $600 million in food rations supposedly sent to Anbar and other Sunni provinces at a time when they were part-controlled by the insurgents, which may never have reached the shops from where they were to be distributed to needy customers.

Iraq was not always uniquely corrupt. In the 1970s its administration was probably more efficient and honest than in most oil producing countries. It was the aftermath of the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 which criminalized Iraqi society. UN sanctions imposed a tight economic siege and were designed to keep oil revenue out of the hands of ruling elite. Extended over 13 years they destroyed society and the economy. The government had no money to pay its employees. The currency collapsed. A university professor suddenly found he was paid only the equivalent of $5 a month and was not allowed to resign from government service. One I knew called Jawad only succeeded in retiring by faking a heart attack and paying off doctors to produce charts showing he was about to expire. Since they were not paid by the government, state employees simply charged the public for any services they provided. Though officials are now quite well paid thiis system still goes on.

At the top end of government Saddam Hussein and his lieutenants quickly found ways of evading sanctions to their own advantage. They controlled the black market. Uday, Saddam’s eldest son, was paid off in millions of dollars by cigarette importers. Russian oil brokers kicked back on oil contracts they were awarded, so money went to the government in Baghdad and not to the UN as it was meant to do under the oil for food program. The men who orchestrated these black market deals under Saddam Hussein found they could quickly establish the same sort of corrupt relationship with post-Saddam-governments. A criminal network was already in place.

As Iraq was impoverished by sanctions in the 1990s street robberies and burglaries became common. In a country which had has little civil crime, taxi drivers began carrying pistols. To stem criminal violence the government started amputating the ears and hands of thieves and showing the gory results on television.
  
By 2003 millions of impoverished Iraqis would do anything for a living, including crime. With the fall of Baghdad they had their opportunity. The beneficiaries of the looting of Iraq were nicknamed the al-hawasim or ‘the finalists’ by Iraqis, a joking reference to Saddam’s boast that the US invasion would see “the final battle”. They stole and, since they viewed the US-installed Iraqi government as illegitimate and an American puppet, they thought they were right to steal. This attitude has not died away.

As violence ebbed from its highest point in 2006-7, Iraqis have become more resentful at corruption and theft. They know that many officials and politicians own luxury villas in Jordan and Egypt. Reconstruction is painfully slow as money allocated to it vanishes. Many families react to a relative being imprisoned by immediately finding out how much they have to pay to get him freed. Political parties use ministries they control as a source of plunder and patronage.

Even the best connected have to pay. The relative of one man, a life-long opponent of Saddam Hussein, was shot and badly wounded earlier this year. The man knew everybody in the top ranks of government and was promised a prompt investigation. He had a strong suspicion about who might have carried out the attempted assassination. but he found the police and judges involved were moving very slowly. He suspected some dark conspiracy by his political enemies and consulted his lawyer about what to do. His lawyer laughed at his suspicions. “No, there is a simpler reason why the police and the judge aren’t doing anything to find the gunmen,” he said. “They are waiting for you to bribe them before they start their investigation.”

PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘ and ‘Muqtada! Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia revival and the struggle for Iraq‘.