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The Iraqi government is seeking to silence critics who accuse it of rampant corruption by removing officials who try to prosecute racketeers and intimidating politicians and journalists who support them.
This month alone it has forced the head of its anti-corruption watchdog to resign. And a prominent Iraqi journalist, who had been threatened for leading anti-government protests, was shot dead in his home in Baghdad.
There is growing anger that the ruling elite is stealing or embezzling much of the country’s $2bn (£1.3bn) a week in oil revenues, depleting funding for electricity, water, health care, housing, education and even rubbish collection. Transparency International says that last year Iraq was the fourth most corrupt country in the world, out of 178 countries surveyed.
The Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and his government have apparently decided to deal with the accusations by hitting back at their accusers. They are trying to remove the parliamentary immunity of an independent MP, Sabah al-Saadi, formerly head of the parliamentary committee on integrity, so that they can arrest him for making allegations against Maliki.
So few officials in Iraq are prosecuted or lose their jobs for corruption that it is difficult to prove how widespread it is, though most Iraqis assume that no job or contract is awarded without a bribe. A report this week by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, called Failing Oversight: Iraq’s Unchecked Government, relates how the Electricity Minister was forced to resign “accused of having signed multibillion-dollar contracts with a Canadian shell company [one with a physical address but no assets or operations] and a German company that had declared bankruptcy.”
Earlier this year, Saadi embarrassed the government by revealing that the general in charge of its rapid reaction team had been arrested in a sting for accepting a $50,000 bribe.
The ICG report says that Maliki’s government has fought long and hard to prevent official theft being curbed by blocking efforts to strengthen state institutions in charge of investigations and prosecution. An Iraqi inspector general is cited as saying that the anti-corruption framework is “like an aspirin to Iraq’s cancer”.
Judge Rahim al-Ugaili, the head of the Integrity Commission, one of the principal oversight bodies, was forced to resign his post on September 9. He said he had had to give up his job because the government was not supporting his anti-corruption work and was interfering politically in his work.
A senior US embassy official testified before Congress that the Prime Minister’s office had issued “secret orders” to the Integrity Commission, prohibiting it from referring cases to the courts involving “former or current high-ranking Iraqi government officials, including the Prime Minister… The secret order is, literally, a licence to steal.”
Critics of the government say they have all been threatened with violence. On the day Ugaili was forced out of his job, a popular radio journalist, Hadi al-Mahdi, was shot twice in the head in his flat in the normally safe Karrada district of Baghdad. His killing happened just before he was due to lead a pro-democracy demonstration against corruption and authoritarianism.
Mahdi had run an outspoken radio show called To Whoever Listens, which was highly critical of the government. Two months ago, he was forced to take it off the air because of fears for his safety. He had told Amnesty International this year that he and three other journalists had been arrested at a protest rally and taken to a military headquarters, where they were beaten, given electric shocks and threatened with rape. Several hours before he was shot Mahdi posted a note on Facebook saying he felt he was in danger. “I have lived the last two days in a state of terror,” he wrote.
The reason for Ugaili’s resignation shows that corruption in Iraq has reached saturation level. The ICG report, citing government sources, says that in 2011 the Integrity Commission and the Board of Supreme Audit had identified hundreds of shell companies abroad linked to senior government officials in the Defense Ministry and Prime Minister’s office. These were winning contracts in Iraq, many of which were never implemented despite being paid for. When Ugaili sought to get the courts to prosecute, the government blocked him and he resigned.
Patrick Cockburn is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq