Kadhimi going after big fish in anti-corruption crackdown

Since 2003, corrupt officials and politicians in Iraq have squandered about a thousand billion dollars in public money, without developing any service sector in the country.
Saturday 19/09/2020
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi waves to local population in Tarmiyah, Iraq. (Reuters)
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi waves to local population in Tarmiyah, Iraq. (Reuters)

BAGHDAD – The recent campaign of arrests carried out by the Iraqi authorities against officials accused of corruption have laid bare the great fear among the political class in the country of being targeted by anti-corruption measures.

By contrast, the Iraqi street is looking forward to seeing these measures brought against the big figures of corruption in the country. The recent arrests, which have hit mostly middlemen and agents of well-known figures in the country, may be a prelude for Kadhimi’s coming battle with the big fish of corruption.

Since 2003, corrupt officials and politicians in Iraq have squandered about a thousand billion dollars in public money, without developing any service sector in the country.

Every summer, Iraqis have to endure electricity shortages and blackouts because the funds allocated for maintaining the electricity grid have been siphoned off. The situation is no better in the health sector where billions of dollars earmarked for the sector since 2003 have disappeared and yet, the existing facilities date back to the era of the late President Saddam Hussein and have become dilapidated. And so have the public schools and universities while private educational institutions owned by the political parties are thriving. Traffic is a mess in Baghdad and the road infrastructure has become impossible.

During the first years following the fall of the previous regime, it was considered a shame and a crime to publicly express one’s regret for the bygone “days of Saddam’s era”, especially among Shiite circles where one ran the risk of being accused of treason for even bringing up Saddam’s name. But now, longing for the Saddam era has become a common occurrence, even on television channels.

In recent years, Iraqis have reached the conviction that eliminating political, financial and administrative corruption in Iraq is impossible, after they became certain that the continued existence of political parties totally depended on what their representatives could steal from the state. Some activists have even suggested to provide a “legal” framework for this type of corruption by setting aside a special subsidy for the parties, so that the rest of the budget could safely go to public services.

The first demand in the largest mass protests experienced by Iraq in October 2019 was to fight official corruption. But, anxious to protect the interests of the system of corrupt religious and sectarian parties, the government of former Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, in partnership with Iraqi militias affiliated with Iran, did nothing more than killabout 700 protesters and woundabout 20,000 more.

The extent of the fierce opposition shown by the Abdul Mahdi government and the militias affiliated with Iran to the idea of ​​overthrowing the existing regime, replacing it, or even correcting its course, reflected the considerable size of the financial gains that the Islamist political parties receiving their orders and directives from Tehran stood to lose if reforms were introduced.

The protests ended up toppling Abdul Mahdi, and with the arrival of Mustafa al-Kadhimi and his government, the street placed great hopes on the popular former intelligence chief to eradicate corruption and get rid of its barons.

Kadhimi’s long-awaited campaign against the big fish of corruption was long overdue, and yet when its first signs appeared during the past three days, it gained widespread public sympathy.

Kadhimi had formed a special committee to follow up on investigating and prosecuting the major files of corruption within the state institutions and appointed prominent general Ahmed Aburaghif at its helm. This committee was immediately the centre of much controversy and it was claimed that its head was given unlimited powers.

The anti-corruption campaign began with the arrest of a middle-level official, Ahmed al-Saadi, director of the retirement department, which raised questions about Kadhimi’s goals and seriousness in going after the big corrupt bosses.

But then, further developments kept eyes riveted on the scene. Two days after Saadi’s arrest, Bahaa Abdul-Hussein, director of Key Card, a company that was contracted to facilitate the payment of retirement pensions, was arrested at Baghdad Airport before he could flee.

Informed sources said that Saadi made confessions that led to the discovery of a wide network of money laundering, used by officials, politicians and parties, and relying on collaborators in Beirut.

Abdul-Hussein’s arrest caused a sensation, due to his strong ties to former officials and current leaders.

The sources indicated that Abdel-Hussein’s arrest may lead to the arrest of other personalities and the recovery of embezzled funds at home and abroad.

Equally nabbed by the anti-corruption campaign were the general manager of the Agricultural Bank, Adel Khudair, and 12 of his employees.

The official authorities did not reveal the reason for Khudair’s arrest, but informed sources said that investigations linked him to the disappearance of huge sums of money in what is known as the “agricultural initiative” which dates back to the era of former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

Maliki took advantage of the simultaneous rise in oil prices and the increase in Iraq’s production of oil during his reign to obtain huge budgets, but despite this, his government was not associated with any achievements and left behind the largest files of corruption and waste of public money.

Maliki’s name appeared in another case that Kadhimi is going after. This is the case of a giant water project in Baghdad, having cost millions of dollars but which has not been completed.

Judicial sources said that travel bans were issued against Dhikra Alloush, a former Baghdad Mayor, and Director of Contracts at the Ministry of Planning Azhar al-Rubaie, on suspicion of collusion in dropping a fine of about $ 100 million on the company contracted for the water project. The director of the Baghdad Water Department was also arrested.

The head of the company contracted to implement the water project, a contractor named Essam al-Asadi, has a close relationship with al-Maliki, and he is said to be still at large and managing his vast business empire behind multiple business fronts.

Perhaps the biggest fish nabbed in the campaign was Shaker al-Zamili, head of the Baghdad Investment Commission, who is reported to be closely associated with the wide business interests of Lebanese Hezbollah in Iraq.

The sources said that Zamili took advantage of his position to grant companies affiliated with Hezbollah millions of dollars in contracts, none of which has been executed. He has escaped legal prosecutions over the past years thanks to his close connection to Hassan Nasrallah’s Hezbollah.

As expected, Kadhimi’s anti-corruption campaign has angered the Shia militias, pushing them to utter threats, since this campaign has for the moment only partially touched the vast network of interests serving Iran’s allies.

Naim al-Aboudi, a member of parliament for the Asaib Ahl al-Haq movement led by Qais Khazali, feared that “there are revenge motives behind this campaign,” and wondered about the reason for “forming a new committee to fight corruption while there is already an official body concerned with integrity.”

“There are concerns about the possibility of political motives being behind this campaign,” Aboudi said, noting that “Kadhimi has overlooked the constitutional contexts by forming this special committee to combat corruption.”

He further added that “this committee may itself get involved in corruption of some kind,” and noted that the Fatah bloc in parliament, to which he belongs and is the only political representative of the Iraqi militias affiliated with Iran, “will stand up to any selective and retaliatory measures that will explode the situation in the country.”

Aboudi continued his threats by saying that “fighting corruption needs political agreements,” meaning that Kadhimi must first seek permission from the parties before arresting their corrupt members, because according to him, “Kadhimi’s current steps are illegal and there may be reactions against them.”