By Walter Pincus
Monday, June 25, 2007
Senior Iraqi cabinet members over a six-month period blocked investigations and prosecutions of corruption within their ministries valued at $35 million, using a Saddam Hussein-era law meant to shield officials from political abuses of the justice system, according to a recent memo by an official at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki reinstated the law, under which no governmental corruption case can be instituted against an Iraqi minister or former minister without the minister's permission. The ministers can, in turn, selectively immunize their subordinates, thus protecting them from being prosecuted for corruption.
As a result, more than 48 investigations or prosecutions initiated between September 2006 and February 2007 by Iraq's Commission on Public Integrity (CPI) were stopped, according to the March 11, 2007, memo prepared for the embassy's Anti-corruption Working Group.
It warns that the number 48 may be an understatement, since ministers asked to see if the immunity law may apply "simply hold on to the cases indefinitely thereby de facto blocking the trial."
The already blocked cases involved possible corruption at 11 ministries and the government's Central Bank. These included probes of contracts aiding rehabilitation of the devastated Iraqi economy, for power plant repairs, bridges and oil production equipment; the theft of dozens of oil trucks carrying a half-million dollars' worth of oil; and "violations" of a contract for armor vests, the memo stated.
At a House Judiciary Committee hearing last week, Stuart W. Bowen Jr., the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, said Maliki's reestablishment of the law -- known as Article 136(b) of the Criminal Procedures Code -- "effectively creates an undemocratic bulwark against the enforcement efforts to fight corruption in Iraq." During his recent visit to Baghdad, Bowen said use of the law came up in discussions in which CPI personnel told him "about political interference with the work of these Iraqi anti-corruption entities."
The first U.S. administrator in occupied Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, suspended Article 136(b) in January 2004 when he established the integrity commission as an independent agency to carry out corruption investigations. But two succeeding Iraqi prime ministers, Ayad Allawi and Ibrahim al-Jafari, brought back immunity for ministers because "they felt anti-corruption prosecutions were targeting on the basis of politics," states the memo, originally written by Vincent Foulk, a U.S. official who is a consultant to the commission.
The memo attributes the Maliki government's repeated use of the immunity law partly to politics. An aide to Bowen said last week that in some cases administrative errors had indeed been transformed into criminal investigations because of political motives.
The memo supports such a possibility, noting that U.S. advisers to the CPI estimated that 20 of the 48 cases could be considered administrative rather than criminal.
The quashed CPI probes included investigations of Central Bank employees who released $14.7 million despite an Agriculture Ministry letter opposing that action; Oil Ministry personnel who manipulated bids for $2.5 million in contracts for pumps and fuel equipment; and others at the Oil Ministry who stole 33 trucks loaded with petroleum. The Electricity Ministry also had bidding irregularities in a $3 million contract, the Youth and Sport Ministry had $3.5 million in contract irregularities, and the Supreme Electoral Commission was being investigated for a $5 million illegal advertising contract.
The memo listed the political affiliations of those caught up in the investigations. Many Central Bank and Agriculture Ministry cases involve followers of Moqtada al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric, while oil cases involve the main Shiite political group.
"Although the law contemplated application after the Investigative Judge finished his investigation, it has been used under the current regime to stop investigations prior to the decision of the Investigative Judge," the memo says.
Bowen and others have made clear that these cases represent only part of the problem. At a May 22 House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing with Bowen, Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.) referred to Maliki's order, saying, "The Iraqi government is clearly misguided in some of its priorities." Bowen replied: "Corruption, fraud within the Iraqi system is rampant, and the power of the fraud-fighting entities to push it back is weak."
At last week's hearing, Bowen said that the CPI commissioner "currently has over 2,000 cases involving $5 billion in alleged corruption." He added, "The president of the Board of Supreme Audit has hundreds of audits ongoing, and in virtually every case -- as he's reported to us -- he has found a serious lack of accountability within the Iraqi government."
National security and intelligence reporter Walter Pincus pores over the speeches, reports, transcripts and other documents that flood Washington, and every week uncovers the fine print that rarely makes headlines -- but should. If you have any items that fit the bill, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.