By Karen DeYoung and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 16, 2007
Official corruption in Iraq is "real, endemic and pernicious," and remains a major challenge to building a functioning, stable democracy there, a senior State Department official said yesterday in response to congressional charges that the department is concealing the extent of the problem.
"Corruption is a reality in Iraq," the department's Iraq policy coordinator, David M. Satterfield, said. "Iraqis at every level have failed to put the nation's interests ahead" of their own and those of their religious, ethnic and tribal affiliations, he said.
Satterfield's comments, in a conference call with reporters, followed angry congressional charges that the State Department has refused to respond to questions about the issue and has unnecessarily classified and redacted U.S. government documents outlining malfeasance in the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
His comments came on the eve of a House vote on a Democratic-sponsored resolution stating that the State Department has abused its authority by withholding information about the extent of corruption in the Maliki government. On Friday, Democratic chairmen of the House committees on Oversight and Government Reform, Appropriations, Foreign Affairs and Armed Services wrote to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice demanding "honest answers" about corruption that may be "fueling the insurgency and endangering our troops" in Iraq.
The latest salvos are part of a running battle that began last month when oversight committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) asked Rice to hand over internal U.S. Embassy documents detailing extensive corruption in the Iraqi government, and demanded that she and other senior officials testify before his committee. The department responded that Rice's schedule was full and offered other officials it said were better versed on the details. Rather than open congressional testimony, it said the officials would brief Waxman's committee in private. The requested documents, the State Department said, were unavailable for use in public session.
Waxman responded with document subpoenas and an Oct. 4 hearing. Iraqi government efforts to stem corruption were criticized in testimony from the head of the Government Accountability Office, the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction and the head of Iraq's Commission on Public Integrity, who said he feared for his life in Iraq and has applied for political asylum in this country.
Lawrence Butler, the State Department's deputy assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs, also testified but refused to publicly discuss the corruption allegations, saying that "questions which go to the broad nature of our bilateral relationship with Iraq are best answered in a classified setting." Butler said that Maliki is "working hard to improve the corruption situation so that he can unite his country."
Yesterday, Satterfield offered a more nuanced view: "We have made clear to the prime ministers, to all ministers, to the president's council, our serious concern." He said Maliki's government acknowledged the problem and "broadly speaking," has the political will to address it. "Would we like to see more?" he said. "Absolutely."
According to internal Embassy memos, anti-corruption efforts in Iraq have had little impact. A July 19 memo from the then-director of the embassy's Office of Accountability and Transparency described a joint Iraqi-U.S. anti-corruption council as "at best irrelevant and at worst an illegitimate tool of the Prime Minister's office."
A separate embassy analysis, written last December and updated in July, assessed that nearly every Iraqi ministry had major corruption problems. The Interior Ministry, in particular, "is seen by Iraqis as untouchable," it said. Radical Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr controlled the Health Ministry, where the inspector general was guarded by Sadr's Mahdi Army militia forces and regularly "shakes down doctors, particularly private clinics, and diverts pharmaceuticals."
The analysis, initially labeled "sensitive," has been widely available on the Internet since early last month. Satterfield said it had been "mis-classified" and was unavailable for public distribution. In general, he said, such "internal working papers" and others containing "sensitive information" have to be protected.
Some of them, he said, include "anecdotal accounts of an individual's view of what they believe may be going on with respect to corruption" that had been provided to the embassy "in many cases, completely uncorroborated by us or the Iraqis." He said that sources had to be sheltered and information verified.
"What we wish is to preserve our ability to combat this issue, not to hide it, but to fight it," Satterfield said. "To believe the U.S. government is concealing vital information, some smoking gun . . . is simply not correct."