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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 20 August 2018

Iraqi ministers face corruption probe

Iraq's Integrity Commission to investigate high-level corruption amid ongoing public unrest

Iraq Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi, speaks during a campaign rally in Baghdad,Iraq. AP
Iraq Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi, speaks during a campaign rally in Baghdad,Iraq. AP

Iraq's prime minister announced a major probe into senior officials and ministers on Tuesday as part of a crackdown on abuse of public office, referring several big names to the country's highest anti-embezzlement body.

Haider Al Abadi directed the Integrity Commission, a government body tasked with fighting corruption, to investigate allegations of fraudulent state contracts in the government's education sector.

The names of the officials will not be released until after the investigation concludes, the prime minister’s spokesman Saad Al Hadithi told The National.

Lack of good governance has been central to Iraqi’s dire problems, with international bodies routinely ranking the country poorly on lists of failing states.

Many Iraqis believe they live in the world's most corrupt country, while Transparency International placed it 169 of 180 on its Corruption Perceptions Index last year.

"The Integrity Commission will open an inquiry in to numerous corruption accusations in various governorates across the country," Mr Al Hadithi said, adding that the individuals include ministers and managers in investment banks.

The country has seen a month of unrest since protests erupted in the south and spread to Baghdad, with demonstrators rallying against power shortages, unemployment, a lack of clean water and state mismanagement.

Last month Mr Al Abadi suspended his minister of electricity, Qassem Al Fahdawi – whose departure was demanded by protesters – "because of the deterioration in the electricity sector" and opened an investigation.

The premier said the suspension of Mr Al Fahdawi would last until the investigation concludes.

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Last week, Mr Al Abadi ordered the formation of a committee to investigate corruption.

"We will hold anyone accountable who delays the implementation of the measures aimed at improving services, the creation of jobs and encouragement of investment," he said last week.

Endemic corruption in Iraq has damaged an economy already badly hit by falling oil prices and the war on ISIS.

The central government has found it difficult to deal with corruption since 2003, Renad Mansour, senior research fellow at London's Chatham House, told The National.

"This is partly because it’s the same leadership that benefits from the system, so every year and in every election, particularly it was evident in the last election, we’ve had the same leaders who have either been unable or unwilling to deal with corruption," he said.

Since taking office in 2014, Mr Al Abadi made an anti-corruption push essential to his leadership. Following a deadly bomb attack in 2016 that killed over 200 people in Baghdad, the premier ordered a renewed investigation looking at the interior ministry's acquisition of fake bomb detectors, which cost Iraq more than 53 million pounds (Dh 285 million).

The investigation led the interior minister, Mohammed Al Ghabban, to announce his resignation.

Additionally, Iraq's former trade minister, Abdul Falah Al Sudany, who was convicted in absentia for corruption charges, was taken into Iraqi custody last January.

Mr Al Sudany resigned in 2009 and fled the country in connection with graft allegations involving Iraq’s food rations program.

He was accused of importing expired commodities, sugar, and procuring illegal contracts as well as failing to fight corruption in his ministry.

Last year, the parliament questioned acting Trade Minister Salman Al Jumaili over fraud accusations linked to the ministry that steamed from a deal to import Indian rice in 2016.

The allegations included importing and distributing contaminated rice and questionable licenses for new wheat mills that went against regulations for the subsidy program.

The country held national elections in May but the vote was marred by widespread fraud allegations, prompting the country's supreme court to order a partial manual recount.

Mr Al Abadi appointed a special committee to investigate the claims, the findings prompted the premier to dismiss five local election officials last Saturday on charges of fraud.

Those in charge of overseas election offices in Turkey and Jordan were also dismissed.

On Monday, the country's electoral commission said it completed the recount but didn't include votes from eastern Baghdad after a fire broke out at a warehouse where ballot boxes were stored.

Since the elections, Iraqi politicians have been in negotiations to form a new government. Leading the talks is populist cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, whose bloc took the largest number of seats in a vote which saw long-time political figures lose votes to candidates promising reforms.

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