Iraqi security storms home of ex-minister under cloud of suspicion

Khateeb recently returned to the spotlight after the national electricity system collapsed amid a severe heat wave.
Wednesday 12/08/2020
A file picture of former Iraqi Electricity Minister Luay al-Khateeb attending the Iraq Energy Forum (IEF) in the capital Baghdad, last September. (Reuters)
A file picture of former Iraqi Electricity Minister Luay al-Khateeb attending the Iraq Energy Forum (IEF) in the capital Baghdad, last September. (Reuters)

BAGHDAD - Former Iraqi Electricity Minister Luay Al-Khateeb said an armed force belonging to the office of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi stormed his house in Baghdad, confiscated recordings of surveillance cameras and left a number of officers to guard him.

Khateeb, who was outside the house when the force stormed the premises, said he asked the force to explain the reason for the operation. The armed force told him that they were carrying out a judicial order, but refused to show the order to the guards stationed outside the house, he said.

Speaking to reporters, Khateeb said he is in possession of a fundamental lease contract for the house that is valid until the end of the year.

The former electricity minister was considered resigned when former Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi walked out last November, yielding to street pressure that began the month before demanding reforms and an end to corruption and foreign interference.

Khateeb recently returned to the spotlight after the national electricity system collapsed amid a severe heat wave, during which the Iraqi cities of Baghdad, Maysan and Anbar recorded temperatures of up to 52 degrees Celsius.

Kadhimi announced that the electricity grid’s collapse was due to the previous government's neglect and failure to conduct regular maintenance operations.

"The previous ministry did not implement projects for the maintenance of (the) electricity grid, which exacerbated the problem, especially in this tough economic and financial juncture that Iraq is experiencing due to the collapse of global oil prices and the implication of the coronavirus pandemic," Kadhimi said.

Khateeb responded by accusing Kadhimi of being the one who “dismantled” maintenance plans when he took over as prime minister.

From Khateeb’s point of view, Abdul-Mahdi’s government, which continued its job for several months after its official resignation, “did not hold up in performing its duties when it came to the issue of electricity maintenance.”

Abdul-Mahdi’s government “rather worked with what (was) available financially and possible executively despite the challenges and limitations such as the absence of a budget legislation and the deterioration of the security and political situation due to the ongoing demonstrations and the coronavirus pandemic, which restricted the activities and movement of companies,” he said.

Sources told The Arab Weekly on condition of anonymity that Khateeb’s house was searched for evidence that could support the prosecution’s charges if a lawsuit were to be filed against the former minister.

The same sources said Khateeb was aware of contracts signed for financial gain that did not benefit the sector, which could have affected the rates of electricity production and distribution.

Khateeb may have also failed to initiate investigations into suspicions of corruption in the signing of contracts to establish power stations for unclear reasons, according to the same sources.

Despite the government's fulfilment of its financial obligations in all contracts for the construction of power stations, many of the projects did not come to fruition due to corruption and extortion by pro-Iranian militias.

Senior officials are now accused by Iraqis of providing militia groups with information about energy companies with the aim of extorting them and sharing the proceeds.

Iraq spent about $50 billion on the electricity sector between 2003 and 2019 without effectively addressing its chronic crisis.

The coronavirus pandemic deepened the devastating effects of the electricity crisis on Iraqis’ lives.

Last month when temperatures soared above 50 degrees celsius, locals were forced to stay at home because of pandemic-related restrictions. During this time, they received electricity for only 8 hours per day, leaving them with 16 hours of blackout.

In recent weeks, many Iraqis have taken to social media to lament their conditions, with some even calling for international intervention to resolve the crisis.

The controversy surrounding the former electricity minister goes beyond accusations that he failed to manage the maintenance file.

There are also suspicions that the ministry coordinated with political parties and armed groups to hire thousands of their supporters within the ministry's institutions, even though they were not needed and the country’s general budget was not slated to cover their salaries.

Under the slogan "Implementing the demonstrators' demands,”  the previous government headed by Abdul-Mahdi hired about half a million people within months in various government institutions that are largely viewed as dysfunctional.

The massive hiring spree only worsened the institutions’ crises and effectively made some of them failed state bodies.

Under Khateeb, the electricity ministry absorbed about 90,000 new employees despite only having the financial resources to hire 5,000.

Some Iraqi deputies said that the operation, which was described as one of the largest fraud operations in the country, had been carried out in coordination with Iranian-backed parties and militias, which helped their members occupy any available positions within state departments, with the aim of strengthening their influence.

According to reports, many political parties got their share of these jobs in exchange for facilitating or overlooking the fraudulent activities.

Last May, Kadhimi’s government announced that it would be unable to pay the salaries of all new employees who entered public service outside the national employment plan.

This announcement predictably sparked numerous protests in various regions of Iraq.