Stories of corruption continue to trickle out of Iraq. Some of them are of low-level graft such as police taking bribes, but others are far more serious such as manipulating the food ration system run by the Trade Ministry. The anti-corruption agencies are overwhelmed by their work, and have made little headway in this battle.
First, there is common, ever day corruption. Al Rafidayn reported that border guards were charging up to $1,500 for trucks with produce to enter the country. In 2009 the Agriculture Ministry imposed a $3,000 tariff on farm imports, but it was later dropped. The border forces however, are still collecting a fee, and pocketing the money for themselves. Rafidayn reported that some trucks were held up at the border for days until they paid the guards. A common way to become a border guard or regular police officer is to pay a bribe. That could be up to $5,000. Other common services also require a payoff. A car license for example, could cost up to $3,000. The pocketing of money can go up to elected officials as well. On March 18 for example, the Board of Supreme Audit, an anti-corruption agency that looks into finances, said that the Salahaddin provincial council had been stealing money from the local government.
Then there are more serious examples of institutionalized corruption. The Trade Ministry is a perfect example. In May 2009 the Trade Minister resigned. He, along with his two brothers and nephew were all accused of taking kickbacks and embezzling money. The Trade Minister was in control of the country’s $5.3 billion food ration system, the largest in the world. The Ministry was also in charge of importing grain, seeds, and construction materials, all ripe for graft. The trouble with the Ministry began when $8 million worth of expired products were found in a warehouse in Muthanna that were meant for the food ration system. Later arrest warrants were issued for the Minister and his family members. Afterward more and more stories of his nefarious activities emerged. Documents were found showing that $4 billion was missing from the Ministry in 2009, and it could go as high as $8 billion over four years. This was due to a number of scams officials were pulling. One was buying contaminated milk from China. This was part of plot where officials would buy old food for cheap and charge the ministry full price and keep the difference. Another was where employees would buy food and then keep it for themselves to be sold on the black market. The stolen food was replaced with cheap substitutes. Yet another was where the Ministry worked with merchants to buy products for twice their price, and then split the difference. An investigation by parliament found that only half of those eligible for their food rations were getting them in full as a result of the corruption within the Trade Ministry.
The anti-corruption committee in the legislature was also looking into allegations against the Interior and Defense Ministries. There are stories that the Defense Ministry took bribes as part of contracts to buy foreign aircraft. The parliament is also looking into how Interior bought bomb detecting wands from a British company for $85 million that don’t work, and were priced far above their going rate.
Iraq’s anti-corruption agencies claim that they are working to combat this massive problem within the Iraqi government, but they are making little headway. The Public Integrity Commission reported that they had issued 433 arrest warrants for alleged acts of corruption from January to February 2010. If warrants continued to be handed out at that rate, the Commission would surpass its 2009 mark of 972. The issue is that those arrests only led to 285 convictions last year, and almost all of those were small time cases like policemen taking bribes. There are also institutional barriers to follow up on investigations. One is that ministers and other top officials can stop cases. Some of the high profiles examples of this were the Labor Minister in 2006, the assistant commander of the Air Force and head of the Electricity Minister’s office in 2007, and the Minister of Transportation in 2008 who were all exempted from arrest and having to go to court. Even more frustrating for the anti-corruption agencies is the fact that the 2008 Amnesty Law that was supposed to help with reconciliation has a clause in it that covers graft and fraud. This led to 1,552 cases being dropped in 2009. 48 cases from the Ministry of Trade, 145 cases from the Ministry of Defense, and 528 cases from the Ministry of Interior were all exempted by this law last year.
Iraq faces corruption from the street level all the way up to the highest levels of government. Iraqis can run into it when they go to the authorities for services or a job, or they can unknowingly be affected by it when they don’t get their full food rations. People’s lives can even be put at risk because of it when the government overpays for bomb detectors that don’t work. The problem is so pervasive and institutionalized it’s no wonder that Iraq has consistently been ranked one of the most corrupt countries in the world the last several years. As long as the major parties that run the ministries are profiting from the graft it’s unlikely that those in power will ever put much effort into fighting it. The Trade Minister for instance, was a member of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Dawa Party. He refused to act on the case until it became such a public scandal that he had no choice. That means the public will continue to suffer for it, and the country, which desperately needs as much money as possible to pay for reconstruction, will have billions wasted as a result.
Agence France Presse, “Iraq watchdog charges 356 with corruption,” 3/17/10
Aswat al-Iraq, “Financial irregularities uncovered in Salah al-Din council,” 3/18/10
- “Pressures block questioning some ministers – MP,” 4/18/09
Colvin, Marie, “Iraq’s trade ministry hit by £2.6 billion fraud,” Sunday Times of London, 3/7/10
Commission of Integrity, “Annual report for 2008,” December 2009
Dagher, Sam, “Gunfight Breaks Out as Iraqi Soldiers Try to Arrest Trade Officials,” New York Times, 5/3/09
Economist, “No promised land at the end of all this,” 3/4/10
Al Rafidayn, “Iraq: Customs Officials Demand Big Bribes to Let Trucks Enter Country,” MEMRI Blog, 3/15/10
Reuters, “Iraq Trade Minister Resigns Over Corruption Scandal,” 5/25/09
Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, “Quarterly Report and Semiannual Report to the United States Congress,” 1/30/10