Iraq wrestles with corruption so deep it is strangling reconstruction

By Patrick Cockburn

"I paid US$800 ($1240) 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 US$500 to US$1500 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 has 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 the 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 runs the US$6 billion food rationing system, which gives endless opportunities for profiting by taking bribes from suppliers or sending tainted goods to the shops.

The Trade Ministry scandal had already become very public when Sudani's guards were involved in a gunfight at the ministry headquarters with police who had come to arrest 10 officials. They 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 be overcome only with a bribe. Several years ago the Government starting issuing special passports, which were supposedly more secure than before. But since the easiest 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 a bribe is not paid to facilitate such transactions, officials subject their victim to bureaucratic harassment until he or she pays up.

Iraq has offered extraordinary opportunities for fraud since the fall of Saddam Hussein. War diverted attention from theft and made it difficult to monitor what was really going on.

The height of the violence in Iraq in 2004-07 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 US$600 million in food rations supposedly sent to Anbar and other Sunni provinces. They may never have reached shops to be distributed to needy customers.

Iraq was not always uniquely corrupt. Its 1970s Administration was probably more efficient and honest than that in most oil-producing countries: the aftermath of the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 criminalised Iraqi society.

By 2003 millions of impoverished Iraqis would do anything for a living. With the fall of Baghdad they had their opportunity. The beneficiaries of the looting of Iraq were nicknamed al-hawasim - "the finalists" - 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 2006-07 high point, Iraqis have become more resentful at corruption and theft. They know that high-ups own luxury villas in Jordan and Egypt. Reconstruction is painfully slow as money allocated to it vanishes.

PEACE PLAN: MILESTONES ON THE ROAD AHEAD

2009

Today: Energy giants, including BP, ExxonMobil and Total, expected to bid for contracts to develop oil and gas fields.

Tomorrow: Deadline by which United States troops must withdraw from cities and towns in Iraq.

July 25: Elections to be held in the Kurdish provinces of Iraq, delayed from October 2008.

July 31: Deadline for remaining British troops to leave Iraq, although some military advisers are expected toremain.

August 1: Date on which the Iraq war inquiry may begin.

August 7: United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (Unami) expires, unless extended.

October 3: Public holiday to celebrate National Iraqi Day, held for the first time in 2008 after the Iraqi Government replaced all holidays that had connotations with Saddam Hussein's rule.

2010

January 30: Elections due to be held for Iraq's 275-seat Council of Representatives.

April 1: 16,000 US Marines expected to leave Iraq in northern spring of 2010.

2011

December 31: Deadline by which all US forces should leave Iraq, under the terms of the US-Iraqi security agreement.

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