x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Scandal plagues former Iraq minister

Abdel Falah al Sudani faces embezzlement charges while Iraqis remain sceptical of government attempts to curb corruption.

BAGHDAD // The arrest of Abdel Falah al Sudani, a former minister, caught trying to flee to Dubai on Saturday, is the latest instalment in a corruption scandal that could scarcely have been more dramatic if written for a Hollywood film. In April police officers turned up at the trade ministry in Baghdad to serve warrants on nine officials suspected of graft and ended up in a shoot-out with ministry guards. All of the wanted men, bar one, escaped as the gun battle raged. Two of the suspects were Mr al Sudani's brothers - he was trade minister at the time - accused of stealing millions of dollars from food import contracts. One of the brothers, Sabah al Sudani, was arrested last month in southern Iraq. According to officials, he was found with US$150,000 (Dh551,000) in cash and offered to pay a policeman $50,000 to be set free. The other brother, Majid al Sudani, has still not been found. Abdel al Sudani, a member of the ruling Dawa Party, remained in his ministerial post, but pressure on him increased with the circulation of a video showing one of his siblings insulting the prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, in front of two scantily clad dancing women. That footage, widely spread on the internet and mobile telephones, turned the case into a full-blown national scandal. The 62-year-old minister was one of hundreds of government officials wanted for questioning by Iraq's Commission on Public Integrity. But a summons ordering him to present evidence was never issued by the ineffective former parliamentary speaker. His recent replacement by the more proactive Iyad Samarrai cleared the logjam and Mr al Sudani was told to appear before legislators for questioning. When he did appear, the minister refused to answer most of the queries and, faced with a no-confidence vote, he resigned on May 14. Mr al Sudani's arrest was ordered on Saturday while he was on board a plane already airborne above Basra, en route to the UAE. Iraqi police contacted the pilot and told him to return to Baghdad, where the warrant was issued. The former trade minister is in prison and set to face an investigating judge on charges of embezzling from a $5 billion a year food aid programme, importing expired foodstuffs, signing illegal deals and employing relatives. He is the highest-ranking official to be formally charged with corruption since 2006. Graft among government officials has become a major political issue in Iraq with billions of dollars in public money missing and corruption a part of everyday life. Iraqis complain of having to pay bribes in countless dealings, large and small, with the authorities. In Oct 2007, Radhi al Radhi, who was the former chairman of Iraq's public integrity commission, estimated corruption had cost $18bn in the previous three years. He also claimed that the Maliki government was blocking investigations and protecting corrupt officials. Under threat of death, Mr al Radhi was subsequently granted asylum in the United States. Since then Mr al Maliki has declared a war on corruption, branding it as dangerous for the country as the insurgency. The arrest of Mr al Sudani was a "breakthrough", according to Alyah Naseef, a member of the parliamentary anti-corruption committee because up until then various political interests had conspired to prevent full investigations. "We have tried to do something about this corruption repeatedly," he said in an interview. "But it was always blocked by senior people in one political party or another, or by some senior people inside the government. "The arrest shows that the government and judiciary are determined to eradicate the administrative corruption that has spread into all arms of the state, he said. "We must hunt down and we will punish every corrupt minister or official and eliminate this problem before it grows any more serious." According to the Commission on Public Integrity, 997 officials are under investigation for corruption, including 53 ranked director general or higher. During the past two months, 120 Iraqis were arrested for corruption charges. Despite the insistence that corruption is now a government priority, there remains huge scepticism among Iraqis about what will actually be done about it. "There is a sense of happiness about al Sudani's arrest but it only really happened because of the personal conflict between Maliki and the minister," said Arkoan Ali, an Iraqi journalist. "In a country full of corruption why not do something about this years before, instead of letting all the money be stolen and forcing the Iraqi people to eat food not fit for human consumption?" "Iraq is a disaster area of administrative corruption," said Amer Yasiri, a professor at Baghdad's Mustansariyah University. "I don't know how or where the honest officials are going to come from to set things right." nlatif@thenational.ae