x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

Iraqi bank chief says he fled after visit by al Maliki

A "cordial" visit from Iraq's prime minister led the head of the country's largest state-owned bank to flee.

Hussein al Uzri, the head of the Trade Bank of Iraq, has been at the centre of a corruption inquiry by the Iraqi government. Randi Sokoloff / The National
Hussein al Uzri, the head of the Trade Bank of Iraq, has been at the centre of a corruption inquiry by the Iraqi government. Randi Sokoloff / The National

A day that began with a "cordial" visit by the Iraqi prime minister ended with Hussein al Uzri fleeing the country.

Mr al Uzri, the head of the Trade Bank of Iraq, the country's largest state-owned bank, has been at the centre of a corruption inquiry by the Iraqi government. He is accused of committing "financial violations", allegedly costing the country millions of dollars. Mr al Uzri has denied the allegations and vows to clear his name.

In a telephone interview, Mr al Uzri said he had no inkling that he was in any trouble before an unscheduled meeting with Nouri al Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, on June 2.

At 11am, Mr al Uzri was notified "suddenly" by one of his employees that Mr al Maliki was at the bank. Mr al Uzri said Mr al Maliki was joined by Ali Moussawi, his media adviser, and Ali al Alak, the cabinet's secretary general.

"Nobody informed me he was going to come," Mr al Uzri said. "The meeting was very cordial, they greeted me, they kissed me and began to praise the bank, that it's reputation was excellent and among the better Iraqi institutions."

The meeting grew contentious during a debate on the upcoming financing of a US$6 billion (Dh22.03bn) deal with a South Korean power company. The prime minister wanted the bank to finance the deal to bring 29 diesel power plants to the country, but Mr al Uzri wanted a sovereign guarantee for the loan.

"We arranged the conference room for Nouri al Maliki. He started the meeting by talking about the bank's achievements, it's accomplishments and the reputation it had earned by the international financial community," Mr al Uzri said. "But then he said there are financial violations, as previous loans disbursed were given without any guarantees or collateral, and would be recoursed to the court. He warned us that we had enough time to defend ourselves leading up to the court session."

Mr al Uzri said that he and three of his staff members disputed the allegations but that the prime minister asked him to round up the bank's department heads for a meeting.

Mr Moussawi then arranged a press conference at which Mr al Maliki told reporters that the Trade Bank of Iraq was the subject of an investigation. He said a committee including representatives from the finance ministry and the central bank had found "financial violations" at the bank.

Mr al Uzri said that at that point he began to fear for his safety.

"I saw 20 Humvees circling the bank. They took over the street and closed it," said Mr al Uzri. He was scheduled to go to another meeting with government officials in one hour.

"I decided not to go to the meeting but to drive myself to an international border and left the country," he said. Mr al Uzri would not confirm which border he crossed.

"I then heard that the military were roughing up some of our employees and clients. I think they were looking for me," he added. He said an arrest warrant was issued for him after he left the country.

Mr al Uzri said the corruption inquiry was political and unfounded.

Iraqi government officials could not be reached for comment.

halsayegh@thenational.ae