Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Iraqis Critical of Anti-Corruption Efforts

Few believe assurances that fraud and incompetence are being tackled.
By Hazim al-Sharaa

Like many in Iraq, Mohamed Hasan, a primary school teacher in the Al-Washash neighbourhood of western Baghdad, says he doesn’t believe the government is serious about tackling corruption.

“Several months have passed since the trade minister was arrested, along with others, but, there have been no criminal proceedings yet,” he said.

The embattled former trade minister, Falah al-Sudani, who resigned earlier this year, could face prosecution over corruption allegations following parliamentary questioning. Since October, the assembly’s integrity committee has also summoned Iraq’s oil and electricity ministers, Hussein Shahristani and Karim Wahid. Both deny charges of corruption and underperformance.

The ministers are allies of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who campaigned on a good governance platform in past elections. Corruption is expected to be a key issue in upcoming parliamentary polls, scheduled for January 2010, and the assembly’s investigations are likely to be used by rival parties to hit at the credibility of Maliki and his Dawa party.

Sabah al-Saedi, head of the integrity committee and a senior official in the Fadhila party, a Dawa rival, said Maliki has not been cooperative regarding the parliamentary questioning, and accused him of trying to delay investigations – a charge that one Maliki loyalist strongly denied.

Maliki “bans any inquiry into ministers in his government in order to try to shelter the corrupt ones”, Saedi claimed.

"Now the [ruling] political blocs themselves are trying to stop inquiries into ministers whose departments’ performance has worsened, under the pretext that it would negatively affect the political and security situation.”

Saedi said the governing coalition parties want to cover up evidence of corruption and failure by ministers who owe allegiance to them.

Iraq is perceived as the world’s fifth most corrupt country ahead of Somalia, Afghanistan, Myanmar and Sudan, watchdog Transparency International reported last week.

Sudani was questioned by the integrity committee in May about accusations that included importing and distributing bad quality sugar and stale wheat; involvement in illegal contracts; and importing items not fit for human consumption.

Sudani, who denies wrongdoing, was accused of corruption by the committee and arrested in May when he was leaving the country. He has since been released on bail and his case has been referred to the Baghdad criminal court, but the court has yet to bring any formal charges, Saedi told IWPR.

Saedi said the case was prepared four months ago and the judge had come under pressure to postpone it until after the forthcoming elections. Another member of the integrity committee, Aliyaa Nesaif Jasim, accused the Dawa party of pressuring the court to release the minister and terminate the case on the basis of insufficient evidence.

But Abdul Hadi al-Hasan, a Dawa party legislator, denied that Maliki had interfered in the Sudani case and parliament’s inquiries into corruption. He noted that the premier had set up his own committee to investigate graft in the trade ministry.

“This shows how much Maliki cares for his people and solving the corruption issue, because it affects their daily lives,” Hasan said.

Jasim dismissed Maliki’s investigation as an attempt to circumvent the courts. She said that although parliament’s questioning of Sudani had come to an end, he would come under scrutiny once more during the elections.

Muaayed Swadie, an Iraqi journalist, says the process of fighting corruption is going through a critical stage.

“It has suffered a setback [with delay in prosecuting Sudani] after the success of parliament in sending the Iraqi trade minister to court,” he said.

Maliki, meanwhile, insists that he is rooting out corrupt officials.

“Corruption has reduced in high-level government organisations and exists now only in the low- level offices. The government will be able to achieve its anti-corruption task soon," he said in a recent statement.

And Ali al-Mosawi, a Maliki advisor, said in a telephone interview, "Corrupt persons will be punished whoever they are. The prime minister does not defend any official or minister. Although the trade minister was from the same political party, justice is taking its course on this issue."

But many ordinary Iraqis are not convinced, believing that corrupt officials are responsible for poor infrastructure and services.

Along the main street that divides the Saydiyah and Baya neighbourhoods of Baghdad, Alyaa Ahmad, a university student, pointed to the poor state of the pavement, which has been re-laid several times, and an unfinished bridge that has been under construction for two years.

"Isn't it sad … How can the government say that financial corruption is being curbed when many officials must pass here daily and see the incomplete bridge that is important for the whole area. It is unbelievable," she said.

Hazim al-Shara is an IWPR-trained journalist in Baghdad. Abeer Mohamed is IWPR Iraq's senior editor, and is based in Baghdad.