BAGHDAD (AFP) – Instead of fighting graft Iraq’s ministers prefer to hide departmental corruption, contributing to a major source of insurgent financing, the country’s top anti-fraud official said on Wednesday.
Iraq is rated by watchdog Transparency International as the fourth most corrupt country in the world, with diplomats and local officials persistently citing widespread graft as a major impediment to the country’s development.
“Once they step into their positions, they see their ministry as a family concern and prevent others from coming in or fighting against corruption,” said Rahim Hassan al-Uqailee, head of Iraq’s Commission on Integrity (COI).
“They seek to protect their team,” he told AFP in an interview.
Uqailee said 4,082 arrest warrants were issued in 2010 against officials suspected of corruption, compared to 3,791 the year before. He said 197 were for top mandarins or ministerial-level officials, compared to 152 the previous year.
Last year, 2,844 suspects were referred to court for 2,322 cases of corruption, amounting to a total $1.3 billion in diverted public funds, he added.
Warrants against defence ministry officials accounted for the biggest chunk of the total, with 13.4 percent of the overall figure, followed by the interior ministry in second place at 7.3 percent. Municipality and public works was third with 6.2 percent.
In the most high-profile such arrest warrant issued in recent years, Iraq’s ex-trade minister Abdel Falah al-Sudani was dramatically detained in May 2009 after his plane was ordered back to Baghdad as he tried to flee the country.
“We are in constant conflict with them (ministers) but we manage to impose the law. The COI is feared by all, including senior officials and even ministers,” said Uqailee, who has headed the commission since January 2008.
“Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is trying to fight corruption and has made efforts in this direction, but he cannot do everything by himself,” the 44-year-old former judge added.
“I believe the ministers do not fight against corruption seriously, and sometimes even think it is better to cover it.”
The number of civil servants imprisoned for corruption grew from 94 in 2006 to 148 and 417 the next two years, and 1,719 in 2009. Last year’s number was was 1,619.
“The increase in the number of arrest warrants, indictments and convictions doesn’t mean there is more corruption, it means we are more efficient,” said Uqailee, adding he regularly receives death threats, like many of the 1,650 employees working under him.
According to monthly surveys conducted by the COI, the government ministry seen by Iraqis as the most corrupt for nine out of the past 12 months is the justice ministry, while residents of the holy Shiite province of Najaf saw their province as the most corrupt for eight months in 2010.
For the judge, who is appointed by the prime minister but can only be dismissed by vote supported by a majority of parliamentarians, the biggest danger from corruption comes from its link to terrorism.
“There is no real political will to fight against this scourge, and yet corruption is one of the most important avenues that fund terrorism and terrorist operations,” he said.
Public funds often end up in the hands of terrorist groups through civil servants sympathetic to their cause, Iraqi officials say.
In the past, some convicted corrupt officials — even at senior level — have been accused of links with insurgents and militias.
Uqailee said that his team could fight corruption more effectively if it was better equipped with access to information, a protection programme for witnesses, and laws controlling political party and campaign financing.
“If parliament could adopt them, we could end corruption in four years,” he declared. “But I am pessimistic, because I do not think this is possible in the legislature because of political conflicts in the country.”
Questioned about last month’s supreme court ruling that changed oversight of several independent institutions, including the COI, from parliament to the cabinet, Uqailee said he disagreed with the decision.
“I totally disagree from a legal point of view about this decision, but I respect it because it was taken by a specialised institution,” he said.