Iraqi Leader Sees Fraud as a Top Worry

By Nada Bakri
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 10, 2009

BAGHDAD, May 9 -- Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki declared Saturday that the theft of public money and other forms of corruption were problems no less pressing than the sectarian ethnic strife that brought Iraq to the brink of collapse.

Maliki's remarks suggested that corruption would be a pivotal issue in parliamentary elections expected by year's end, and they came amid growing criticism in parliament. The topic has dominated newspaper headlines and emerges in many conversations in Baghdad's streets.

"We should launch a campaign against those corrupt people just as we had launched a campaign against outlaws," Maliki said at a meeting in Baghdad with an influential tribe.

Transparency International, a corruption watchdog group, ranked Iraq as the world's third-most corrupt country, behind first-place Somalia and Burma.

The former head of Iraq's Commission on Public Integrity, Radhi al-Radhi, said in 2007 that at least $8 billion allocated for reconstruction, military supplies and food had disappeared. He fled Iraq that year after 31 of his investigators were assassinated, and he resides in the United States.

Corruption emerged as a dominant campaign theme in provincial elections held in most of Iraq in January, and the spectacular breadth of public theft has undermined confidence in the rule of law in Iraq.

"Corruption is like terrorism, even more dangerous than terrorism," said Mahmoud Othman, an independent lawmaker. "It disintegrates the country and affects everything."

On Saturday, members of parliament said they were collecting signatures so they could question Maliki and some of his ministers about corruption, starting with the trade minister in the coming week. They need 50 signatures to bring Maliki before parliament, and several said they did not have that number but remained hopeful. The lawmakers have also called for Maliki and his ministers to face parliament at a regular weekly session.

"He treats us like enemies," said Wael Abdul-Latif, another lawmaker. "This is wrong. One branch has to work with the other."

Last month, anti-corruption advocates in the Iraqi government ordered the arrest of Trade Ministry officials accused of stealing public money. But guards at the ministry traded gunfire with police who arrived to detain the officials, giving them time to flee.

"If parliament puts sectarianism aside, if they really interrogate Maliki and his ministers, I think they could solve the administrative corruption," said Hassan Abdel Wahab, 53, a retired teacher who lives in Baghdad.

Maliki and his aides have long played down government corruption, and his speech might suggest an awareness on his part of a widening disenchantment with authorities.

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