Ten years after Saddam corruption is rife

Iraqis are not naive. Grim experience of their country's rulers over the past 50 years leads many to suspect them of being self-serving, greedy, brutal, and incompetent.

Ten years ago, some had hoped Iraqis might escape living in a permanent state of emergency as the United States and Britain overthrew Saddam Hussein. Others were wary of Iraqis returning from abroad who promised to build a new nation.

A few months before the invasion, an Iraqi civil servant secretly interviewed in Baghdad made a gloomy forecast. "The exiled Iraqis are the exact replica of those who currently govern us ... with the sole difference that the latter are already satiated since they have been robbing us for the past 30 years," he said. "Those who accompany the US troops will be ravenous."

Many of the Iraqis who came back to Iraq after the US-led invasion were people of high principle who had sacrificed much as opponents of Saddam Hussein.

But fast forward 10 years and the prediction of the unnamed civil servant about the rapacity of Iraq's new governors turns out to have been all too true. As one former minister puts it, "the Iraqi Government is an institutionalised kleptocracy".

It is a view shared by Iraqis in the frontline of business in Baghdad. Property prices in the capital are high and there are plenty of buyers.

I asked Abduk-Karim Ali, a real-estate broker, who was paying so much for houses. He replied with a laugh that there were investors from Kurdistan and Bahrain, but most buyers he dealt with are "the thieves of 2003 who have the money".

"Who are they?" I asked. "I mean the officials in the Government," said Mr Ali. "They buy the best properties for themselves."

"The corruption is unbelievable," says Ghassan al-Atiyyah, a political scientist and activist. "You can't get a job in the army or the Government unless you pay, you can't even get out of prison unless you pay. Maybe a judge sets you free but you must pay for the paperwork, otherwise you stay there. Even if you are free you may be captured by some officer who paid US$10,000 ($12,040) to US$50,000 for his job and needs to get the money back."

In an Iraqi version of Catch-22 everything is for sale. One former prison detainee says he had to pay his guards US$100 for a single shower.

Corruption complicates and poisons the daily life of Iraqis, especially those who cannot afford to pay. But the frequent demand for bribes does not in itself cripple the state or the economy.

More damaging for Iraq is the wholesale theft of public funds. Despite tens of billions of dollars being spent, there is a continuing shortage of electricity and other necessities. Few Iraqis regret the fall of Saddam, but many recall that, after the US air strikes on the infrastructure in 1991, power stations were patched up quickly using only Iraqi resources.

There is more to Iraqi corruption than the stealing of oil revenues by a criminalised caste of politicians, parties and officials. Critics of Nouri al-Maliki, Prime Minister since 2006, say his method of political control is to allocate contracts to supporters, wavering friends or opponents whom he wants to win over.

But that is not the end of the matter. Beneficiaries of this largesse "are threatened with investigation and exposure if they step out of line", says one Iraqi observer.

"Maliki uses files on his enemies like J. Edgar Hoover," the observer says. The system cannot be reformed by the Government because it would be striking at the very mechanism by which it rules. State institutions for combating corruption have been systematically defanged, marginalised or intimidated. Five years ago, a senior US embassy official testified before Congress that Mr Maliki had issued "secret orders" preventing cases being referred to the courts by the Integrity Commission (an independent government commission tasked with tackling and preventing corruption) "if the cases involve former or current high-ranking Iraqi government officials, including the PM ... The secret order is, literally, a licence to steal".

Nothing much has changed since then. Blatant scams continue and receive official protection. In 2011, Rahin al-Ugaili, the head of the Integrity Commission, unmasked "shell companies" abroad used by officials to award contracts to themselves.

Full payment was made to the companies even if the contracts were never fully implemented. A report by the International Crisis Group, a not-for-profit organisation established to prevent and resolve conflict, says that "when the [Integrity] Commission sought to engage the courts to prosecute it found the Government blocked all avenues, pressuring Ugaili to resign in protest".

Why is the corruption in Iraq so bad? The simple answer that Iraqis give is that "UN sanctions destroyed Iraqi society in the 1990s and the Americans destroyed the Iraqi state after 2003". Patronage based on party, family or community determines who gets a job. There are many winners as well as losers and all depends on Iraqi oil exports going up and prices staying high. "I only once saw panic in the Cabinet," says an ex-minister, "and that was when there was a sharp drop in the price of oil."

- Independent

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