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A Culture of Corruption

Times Staff Writer

Iraq’s new trade minister was three months into his job when he found out about the door scam.

Alerted by a complaint this fall, Ali Abdul-Amir Allawi discovered that the ministry had agreed to order wooden doors for $100 million, a 220% markup, through 10 well-connected companies -- and everyone involved would reap the spoils.

After the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime, bureaucrats who remained in their posts continued to push the order, prioritizing it over crucial food and medical shipments and accepting what Allawi described as “millions of dollars in bribes.” Two top officials have been suspended and the case has been referred to the local prosecutor.

The cost so far: $40 million.

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“It’s the tip of the iceberg,” Allawi said.

As Iraqis and their occupiers comb through mass graves and struggle against terrorist attacks, they are coming to grips with yet another crippling Hussein legacy: a massive government riddled with corruption.

With U.S. taxpayers pouring billions of dollars into the country and Iraqis feeling frustrated by the sense that the Americans are doing little to root out chiselers and shakedown artists, the persistence of graft is a vital issue.

On Saturday, Iraqi Governing Council President Adnan Pachachi announced the creation of a National Commission on Public Integrity to try to clean up the problem.

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The commission, like several others created by the U.S.-appointed Governing Council, will be part of a de facto fourth branch of government with independent authority.

Under Hussein, public employees were so poorly paid that they demanded bribes from the public to feed their families. Because the totalitarian regime sought total control of its citizens’ lives, payoffs pervaded virtually every level of society: Kickbacks were needed to get a passport for the hajj pilgrimage, evade a police checkpoint, build a house or get out of the army.

Top officials plundered the treasury to the extent that even Hussein’s personal poets were recently arrested by Interpol on suspicion of financial crimes.

And the corruption has continued since the regime’s ouster.

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The new head of the prison system was recently jailed for trying to create a network of subordinates who could extort bribes in exchange for prison releases, Iraqi police said.

The U.S.-appointed mayor of the city of Najaf was arrested on suspicion of kidnapping and theft. The Pentagon is investigating the award of Iraq’s cellphone contract to companies linked to a former Hussein loyalist and to a friend of a Governing Council member.

In addition, many rebuilding contracts have been swiftly awarded without the normally laborious vetting process, which has sparked allegations that Hussein cronies are improperly profiting from U.S. aid.

The persistence of corruption feeds resentment toward what many Iraqis see as the United States’ ignorance of their country and its inability to maintain control.

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“The people feel nothing has changed,” said Jabber Habib, a political scientist at Baghdad University.

His advice to Americans: “Deal with corruption, because one of the [reasons] for the insecurity is the corruption.”

Officials at all levels of the nascent government are scrambling to do this, with the occupation authority coordinating with the Iraqi Governing Council to create the committee to combat government corruption. Still, officials with both agencies offer few specifics about what the body will do.

Experts say it will take years to cleanse Iraqi society of its culture of corruption. As an example, Habib recounted a recent conversation with an Iraqi police officer whose job was to impound weapons. The cop, who had been paid a pittance under Hussein, was allowing people to keep their firearms for a modest payment.

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Habib chastised him, noting that Americans have increased public-sector pay tenfold to remove one of the major motivations for graft.

“Why are you doing this?” Habib asked the policeman. The officer’s answer: “I used to do this, and now I can’t stop it.”

To better understand the challenge facing those who would stamp out graft in the new Iraq, consider the case of Walid Kashmoola’s ceiling.

The former Iraqi army general, who lost his military post after falling out of favor with Hussein in 1991, has been appointed as the head of the country’s first anti-corruption office. But just as the unit was getting off the ground in the northern city of Mosul, the January rains came and Kashmoola’s office ceiling caved in.

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Now he is bivouacked in spare quarters in a government complex on the outskirts of the city. The same contractors who built his shoddy old roof are hammering away on his new one. Like most everyone in Iraq, they too are rumored to be corrupt.

The Mosul anti-corruption office is the brainchild of Lt. Col. Rich Whitaker, a military lawyer who was responsible for reviving the legal system in Iraq’s northern provinces. In the days after the war, as he tried to rebuild a semblance of a government, he was swamped by accusations of graft.

“The translators are corrupt, the contractors are corrupt.... Every time there’s a paragraph spoken here, there’s an allegation of corruption,” he said.

“It’s kind of an ankle-biter. Every day you don’t know who to trust.”

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Whitaker caught several crooked cops trying to extort bribes, but he said he soon realized that he and his troops would be unable to sort out the true criminals from the wrongly accused. “None of us is Lawrence of Arabia,” he said. “We don’t understand this culture.”

So the army turned to Kashmoola.

The former general has seen it all. But even as he launches a dozen investigations of possible local wrongdoing, he appears baffled about how to catch corrupt officials in the act.

“We are dealing with devils,” Kashmoola said. “We cannot see God, but we know there is God. We see this person, he looks like a devil, but we don’t have the evidence.”

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The FBI is training Kashmoola’s staff in the basic arts of evidence-gathering, surreptitious tape-recording and interviewing. “Investigation is an unknown science here,” Whitaker said. “They just used to grab the people who were accused, torture them and throw them in jail.”

Whitaker and other officers of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division have opened the office before its investigators are trained because they hope its mere existence will serve as a deterrent. They were heartened by the unnerved reaction of the Mosul City Council when it was introduced to Kashmoola’s team last month -- but dismayed by the drive-by assassination attempt that severely wounded one of the prosecutors.

Kashmoola’s people aren’t the only ones threatened. Insurgents target Iraqis who cooperate with occupation forces, which means that many corruption-busters feel vulnerable. A Health Ministry official working to clean up corruption in that department was assassinated in December, and officials in other ministries have reported that they have been warned they are targets. The Iraqi police’s internal affairs office in Baghdad receives regular death threats from gangsters -- and cops.

Rafid Daoud, a captain in the police unit, sees the warnings as a sign that his U.S.-trained operation’s new professionalism and honesty are shaking up the force. He says police corruption, while still a reality in Iraq, appears to be slowly dwindling.

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He attributes the lingering vice to the legacy of Hussein, who used internal affairs to gather intelligence on political enemies and tolerated graft and brutality in the rank and file. Daoud points to what appears to be an old rotary telephone on his shelf. The receiver actually ends in a trail of exposed wires. The device was used to torture suspects under Hussein. Daoud recently busted a cop who was still using it -- now to deliver shocks to women who he claimed were prostitutes.

The persistence of this behavior is one reason that, despite his optimism, Daoud still warns his family members to check the license plate and badge if they get pulled over by anyone who purports to be an officer. “Thirty-five to 40 years,” he said, “will not be forgotten in a moment.”

Hamid Kifai, the spokesman for the Governing Council, also views the corruption question with a mix of optimism and pessimism. He says that anecdotal reports are that bribery is down, and proudly cites the case of one reformed top official who recently rejected a bribe. Yet he acknowledges that corruption still riddles the land.

“The reasons for the corruption, especially bribery, are unemployment and poverty,” he said. “Once we deal with the economic situation, hopefully the Iraqi people will rise above this.”

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But in what he sees as a troubling sign of continued tolerance for corruption, Allawi, the trade minister, reports that businessmen still expect sweet deals.

“Certain groups,” he said, “ask me to basically write them $6-million checks.”

In the case of the door contract, a company that Allawi would not identify approached him in late fall and complained that the ministry had reneged on its agreement involving the group of 10 corporations that provided doors to Iraq. News of such a cartel rang alarms in the new administration.

The ensuing investigation found not only problems in the inflated door contract but also that many of Iraq’s contracts for construction materials were at exorbitant prices through companies with connections to the former regime, Allawi said. Some of these companies were based in Egypt, Jordan or the United Arab Emirates and run by officials in Hussein’s secret police.

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The ministry’s manager of economic relations was put on leave and fled to Jordan, and one of his subordinates also has been removed, a trade official said. Neither man could be reached for comment.

The ministry has bolstered its audit section, removed all its directors and cut off contracts with companies run by Hussein’s cronies. But, officials said, some of those companies are still calling. They still expect a piece of business.

*

Times staff writer Alissa Rubin and Raheem Salman of The Times’ Baghdad Bureau contributed to this report.

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