Iraqi Red Crescent Paralyzed by Allegations

By Amit R. Paley and Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 25, 2008

BAGHDAD -- The Iraqi Red Crescent, the country's leading humanitarian organization, has been crippled by allegations of embezzlement and mismanagement, including what Iraqi officials call the inappropriate expenditure of more than $1 million on Washington lobbying firms in an unsuccessful effort to win U.S. funding.

The group's former president, Said I. Hakki, an Iraqi American urologist recruited by Bush administration officials to resuscitate Iraq's health-care system, left the country this summer after the issuance of arrest warrants for him and his deputies. He and his aides deny the allegations and call them politically motivated.

The Red Crescent oversees the largest humanitarian operation in the country, with thousands of employees and an annual budget of $60 million funded in large part by the Iraqi government. The group has ceased nearly all its humanitarian work in recent months after the government froze its assets. The agency, which distributed more than 35,000 emergency food packages in June, handed out just 2,000 in July.

The crisis at the Red Crescent -- detailed in interviews, internal agency documents and investigative reports -- illustrates many of the challenges Iraq faces as its leaders seek to assert more control over security, reconstruction and humanitarian work. Iraqi officials point to Hakki and other former exiles brought to Iraq by the U.S. government as one reason that key institutions remain inefficient and corrupt.

"We are supposed to be an organization that helps people, and instead we have been infected by a culture of corruption," said Abdul Kareem Aboud al-Humeidi, a critic of Hakki who was elected interim president of the Red Crescent this summer. "If the whole world is so concerned about the humanitarian crisis in Iraq, why has no one fixed the problems at the Red Crescent?"

In several telephone interviews from Beirut, Hakki said his expansion of the organization's size and budget has helped millions of Iraqis. He called the probes a ploy by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to purge him and other allies of former prime minister Ibrahim al-Jafari from top jobs in the country.

"I risked my life to come to Iraq and build the largest and the only effective organization working in the country," said Hakki, 64. "I will not stand by and let the Iraqi Red Crescent be destroyed."

Hakki's management practices caused alarm among his colleagues shortly after he arrived at the Red Crescent.

A former adviser to Saddam Hussein's Health Ministry, Hakki fled the country in 1983 and eventually settled in Florida, where he became a U.S. citizen. He developed a urology practice, taught at the University of South Florida and became known for his patented work on prosthetic penile implants.

Just before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration asked Hakki to return to Baghdad. At the time, the administration sought to fill positions in Iraq with Republican supporters; Hakki has donated $13,800 to Republican candidates and party organizations since 1988. Jafari, Iraq's premier from mid-2005 to mid-2006, appointed Hakki to lead the Red Crescent. Jafari declined to comment for this article.

"We were impressed with him at the beginning. He was an American and an academic," said Humeidi, then a member of the board of directors.

But Hakki soon clashed with the head of the society's accounting division, Faiza Fadhil Whayeb, who insisted that Hakki and his deputies put out all contracts for competitive bidding, according to Humeidi and other agency officials. Hakki refused, they said. In an interview, Hakki said it was sometimes necessary to avoid time-consuming bidding procedures because of the pressing need and the difficulty of working under wartime conditions. Whayeb said she could not comment.

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