BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Many Iraqis, inured to violence after years of slaughter between Shi’ites and Sunnis, seem more worried about the corruption that has crept into every corner of life and is eating away at Iraq’s nascent public institutions.
The violence triggered by the 2003 U.S. invasion is fading and as it does, Iraqis focus more and more on the problems plaguing their daily lives, such as intermittent electricity, a lack of clean drinking water and an overwhelmed sewage system.
Topping the concerns of many is a pandemic of corruption, which is undermining efforts to rebuild and provide basic services and could ultimately brew so much discontent that the flagging insurgency may find rich soil in which to renew itself.
“I cannot move one step without bribing people,” said Adel Hamza, who as head of public relations at a foreign construction company is responsible for getting contracts signed, stamped and authenticated by Iraqi authorities. “Everyone has got their mouths open as if I am feeding birds.”
It is difficult to find someone in the government who can put a figure on the amount being embezzled or paid in bribes for government contracts, passports or other official paperwork.
One senior official, speaking on condition he not be identified, said at least $4 billion of Iraq’s $58.6 billion 2009 annual budget was expected to go astray.
As oil prices surged to historic highs last year over $147 per barrel, the Iraqi economy was flooded with cash. Only Somalia and Myanmar were seen as more corrupt than Iraq in 2008, according to corruption watchdog Transparency International.
MALIKI VOWS CRACKDOWN
The end of June will mark the start of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, when the combat troops that invaded to topple Saddam Hussein pull out of Iraqi cities, leaving security in urban centres in the hands of Iraqi police and soldiers.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and other politicians have warned that Sunni Islamist al Qaeda and other violent groups are likely to try to take advantage of the U.S. pull-back to launch more attacks in a bid to reignite sectarian warfare.
A spate of bombings around Baghdad and in other areas killed 27 people Monday and a massive truck bomb Saturday killed 73 outside a mosque near the northern city of Kirkuk.
Haider Abdul-Muhsin says that when he needs to get Interior Ministry officials to sign identification documents, he has to spread money around like confetti.
“From the entry gate where a security guard stands till I get to the officer, I have to pay money to get my paperwork processed. This is not normal,” said Muhsin.
He believes corruption lies behind the dilapidated state of his neighborhood, where sewage pools in cracks in the pavement. A renovation project begun three years ago was never finished. Muhsin said he heard the contractor took the money and ran.
“My district looks like it was hit by a rocket,” he said.
In the wake of corruption allegations against officials in the Trade Ministry, which oversees Iraq’s massive food subsidy program and imports billions of dollars worth of wheat, rice and sugar every year, Maliki vowed to crack down on graft.
Former trade minister Abdul Falah al-Sudany was arrested last month after a plane he was flying on to Dubai was ordered to turn around. One of his brothers is also under arrest and another is on the run. The ministry has denied wrongdoing.
“Financial and administrative corruption is more dangerous than terrorism because terrorism kills a person or two or even 100, but corruption kills millions by depriving them of projects, from getting access to good quality medicine … and it does not encourage international investors,” said Ghazi al-Kinani, an economic analyst.
Housewife Najat al-Azzawi said the lack of public services six years after the invasion made her nervous about the future.
“Security was previously the problem, now corruption heads the list,” she said.