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In Corruption, New Government of Iraq Faces a Tough Old Foe

Times Staff Writer

Each day hundreds of visitors fly into this war-ravaged capital aboard state-owned Iraqi Airways planes that Transportation Ministry officials say were purchased for $3 million apiece.

Anti-corruption officials contend that they should not have cost more than $600,000 each and wonder where the rest of the money went.

For the record:

12:00 AM, May. 27, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday May 27, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Iraqi airliners: An article in Tuesday’s Section A on corruption in Iraq included a photo caption noting that state-owned Iraqi Airways had purchased jets at a highly inflated price. It is unknown whether the plane shown in the photo, at Baghdad’s international airport, was among those.

Inside the airport terminal, customs officials routinely hassle disembarking passengers for a “customs fee.” The price is often negotiable.

Outside, a passenger can find a ride with one of the waiting taxis, many of them fueled with smuggled gasoline.

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Beyond the airport, city streets teem with cars. A good portion of them -- 17,000, according to anti-corruption officials -- were stolen from the government after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Corruption is among the most critical problems facing Iraq’s newly formed government, U.S. and Iraqi officials say. Moments after announcing most of his new Cabinet on Saturday, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki declared that fighting corruption would be one of his main priorities. U.S. and Iraqi officials say endemic graft and conflicts of interest await Maliki everywhere he turns.

Iraqi government documents obtained by the Los Angeles Times reveal the breadth of corruption, including epic schemes involving hundreds of millions of dollars in government contracts, as well as smaller-scale cases such as the purchase of better grades by university students and the distribution of U.S.-issue pistols as party favors by a former Justice Ministry official.

“We are seeing corruption everywhere in Iraq -- in every ministry, in every governorate,” said Judge Radhi Radhi, head of the Commission on Public Integrity, Iraq’s anti-corruption agency.

An elderly judge who was disbarred, jailed and tortured under Saddam Hussein’s government, Radhi bears scars on his face from acid burns during his brutal imprisonment. His eyes, damaged by lack of light during his captivity, squint from behind Coke-bottle glasses.

“We are revealing the country’s secrets,” he said, perusing the thick binders of case files that line the walls of two commission offices.

Defense Ministry officials spent $1 billion on questionable arms purchases, Radhi said. The Interior Ministry has at least 1,100 ghost employees, costing it $1.3 million a month, he added.

Corruption in Iraq is not new. Yet many experts believe that the situation has worsened dramatically since the war began.

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“Corruption thrives in a context of confusion and change,” Transparency International, a nongovernmental anti-corruption monitoring group, said in a report last year.

“In Iraq, public institutions are even struggling to find out how many employees they have on their payrolls,” the report says. “Obvious institutional safeguards are yet to be put in place, and ministries and state companies lack proper inventory systems.”

Corruption helps fuel the insurgency too, Radhi said. “The terrorists help the criminals, and the criminals help the terrorists,” he said. “Without corruption, we would have been able to defeat the terrorists by now.”

Since 2003, hundreds of police officers and soldiers have abandoned their posts, and many took their weapons with them, U.S. officials say. Many of those weapons, along with millions of dollars’ worth of arms that are unaccounted for, have probably ended up in insurgent hands, U.S. military sources and Iraqi anti-corruption officials say.

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Parliament member Mishaan Jaburi was implicated this year in a case in which pipeline sentries allegedly conspired with insurgents to hijack oil convoys and spirit them out of Iraq.

There is a pervasive and growing black market in unregistered and smuggled cars, which U.S. and Iraqi military officials believe plays a part in the steady stream of car-bomb attacks.

In addition, corruption has siphoned away resources that could have been used for reconstruction and security.

Altogether, unaccountable weapons and equipment may total more than $500 million, U.S. military officials acknowledged this year. Unlike the insurgency, which is being vigorously challenged by U.S.-led forces, there appear to be few checks on government corruption.

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Located in offices within Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, the Commission on Public Integrity is the nation’s premier anti-corruption monitoring agency. But of the approximately 3,000 corruption cases investigated by the commission, about 780 have been registered with the courts, and only about a dozen have reached a verdict, commission and court officials say.

Of 40 cases involving Iraq’s highest-ranking government officials, including ministry chiefs and their directors general, the courts have issued a verdict against only one -- an Interior Ministry official accused of stealing police property and payroll funds. As of last month, the police had failed to execute an arrest warrant for him.

“We’ve seen a commitment on the part of the [commission] to fight corruption spanning different parties, sects and administrations,” said an American official who, like other U.S. government sources interviewed for this article, spoke on condition of anonymity. “The problem we’re seeing right now is that these cases are not being adjudicated.”

To some extent, courts have been reluctant to take on corruption cases because they are so overloaded with terrorism cases.

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But intimidation is also a major factor. More than 20 judges have been killed since 2003. This month, gunmen assassinated the son of Midhat Mahmoud, chief judge of the Iraqi Supreme Judicial Council. The judge survived a bomb attack on his home in December.

Inspectors general, who are supposed to refer cases to the commission, also have been subjected to threats and in several cases have been fired for investigating claims of criminal behavior. Last year, Interior Ministry Inspector General Nori Nori was fired days after he was quoted in The Times about the influence of Shiite Muslim militias in the police forces.

“There are 563 corruption cases that are still under investigation,” said a senior Iraqi investigative judge. The judge, who said he and his colleagues often faced intense political pressure, asked not to be named for fear of reprisals.

“Sometimes the judges are hesitating because the accused are connected to certain ministers,” the judge said. “According to the law, we need the approval of the minister to prosecute. If it is a case involving a minister himself, then we need to apply to the Council of Ministers.”

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Legislators this year reinstated a law that required ministerial approval for inquiries involving ministry employees. U.S. officials complain that this requirement has thwarted justice in scores of cases. Ministers have also escaped prosecution by claiming immunity, according to Tariq Harb, a prominent Baghdad lawyer.

In a notable case, Mohammed Abid Muzeil, then-director general of the Oil Ministry, was accused of financial violations including the diversion of millions of dollars earmarked for pipeline protection and oil infrastructure projects. The oil minister intervened to stop the investigation, according to the documents obtained by The Times.

“There are some in the Health Ministry who steal medicine for the medical mafia. We have a case where national bank employees stole money and replaced it with counterfeit dinars,” Radhi said, listing some of the commission’s cases. “Employees at the dentistry college made receipts claiming they bought materials that they hadn’t bought. And these are the small cases.

“I have 70 cases in which government officials used government money to spend on their houses -- reconstruction, buying furniture -- with amounts from $20,000 to $35,000,” he said. “We also have parliament members who are allowed to use a government house for five years, two government cars and seven bodyguards. But most of them are not satisfied with this. We had one lady who took 10 cars and 30 bodyguards. They do as they like, but we are following them.”

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U.S. officials said they were concerned that Iraqi legislators had threatened to strip Radhi of his ministerial rank and withdraw funding for his commission after the new government was inaugurated.

Commission opponents have charged that Radhi is a puppet for the Americans, noting that the U.S. created his panel. “I say to them: Tell me who among you hasn’t been appointed by the Americans,” Radhi said.

“I will be relieved if I get a smaller job because this one has so many problems. Why would I want this job? A day will come when all Iraqis will be my enemies.”

Many ordinary Iraqis say they cannot imagine their society without a certain level of corruption. Iraqis pay off officials to lower phone bills and to expedite paperwork, to move to the head of the payroll line and to free imprisoned relatives from jails.

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“I think giving bribes is part of our everyday life,” said Mohammed Jassem Rasheed Doulami, a Baghdad businessman. “About a week ago, I had to register my car. The whole process could have taken me three days, but I made a deal with a police officer to fix the whole thing in a half-hour if I paid him $17.”

Faiq Ali, a 36-year-old Baghdad sculptor, was stopped by traffic police this month as he was taking his sick wife to the hospital. In Baghdad, cars are allowed on the roads only on alternate days, depending on whether their license plates end in odd or even numbers, to cut down on traffic. The officer told Ali that he was driving on the wrong day.

“I explained to him that this was an emergency and that my wife was ill. I told him that I respect the law, but I was asking for an exception in this case,” Ali said.

“He said the government charges a $20 fine, but he would let me pass for only $15. I was amazed at how brazen he was. So, I told him, ‘I won’t give you more than $8.’ ”

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