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A Culture of Corruption

Under Hussein, payoffs pervaded nearly every level of Iraqi society. Reform efforts have begun, but many find that old habits persist.

February 01, 2004|Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Iraq's new trade minister was three months into his job when he found out about the door scam.

Alerted by a complaint this fall, Ali Abdul-Amir Allawi discovered that the ministry had agreed to order wooden doors for $100 million, a 220% markup, through 10 well-connected companies -- and everyone involved would reap the spoils.

After the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime, bureaucrats who remained in their posts continued to push the order, prioritizing it over crucial food and medical shipments and accepting what Allawi described as "millions of dollars in bribes." Two top officials have been suspended and the case has been referred to the local prosecutor.

The cost so far: $40 million.

"It's the tip of the iceberg," Allawi said.

As Iraqis and their occupiers comb through mass graves and struggle against terrorist attacks, they are coming to grips with yet another crippling Hussein legacy: a massive government riddled with corruption.

With U.S. taxpayers pouring billions of dollars into the country and Iraqis feeling frustrated by the sense that the Americans are doing little to root out chiselers and shakedown artists, the persistence of graft is a vital issue.

On Saturday, Iraqi Governing Council President Adnan Pachachi announced the creation of a National Commission on Public Integrity to try to clean up the problem.

The commission, like several others created by the U.S.-appointed Governing Council, will be part of a de facto fourth branch of government with independent authority.

Under Hussein, public employees were so poorly paid that they demanded bribes from the public to feed their families. Because the totalitarian regime sought total control of its citizens' lives, payoffs pervaded virtually every level of society: Kickbacks were needed to get a passport for the hajj pilgrimage, evade a police checkpoint, build a house or get out of the army.

Top officials plundered the treasury to the extent that even Hussein's personal poets were recently arrested by Interpol on suspicion of financial crimes.

And the corruption has continued since the regime's ouster.

The new head of the prison system was recently jailed for trying to create a network of subordinates who could extort bribes in exchange for prison releases, Iraqi police said.

The U.S.-appointed mayor of the city of Najaf was arrested on suspicion of kidnapping and theft. The Pentagon is investigating the award of Iraq's cellphone contract to companies linked to a former Hussein loyalist and to a friend of a Governing Council member.

In addition, many rebuilding contracts have been swiftly awarded without the normally laborious vetting process, which has sparked allegations that Hussein cronies are improperly profiting from U.S. aid.

The persistence of corruption feeds resentment toward what many Iraqis see as the United States' ignorance of their country and its inability to maintain control.

"The people feel nothing has changed," said Jabber Habib, a political scientist at Baghdad University.

His advice to Americans: "Deal with corruption, because one of the [reasons] for the insecurity is the corruption."

Officials at all levels of the nascent government are scrambling to do this, with the occupation authority coordinating with the Iraqi Governing Council to create the committee to combat government corruption. Still, officials with both agencies offer few specifics about what the body will do.

Experts say it will take years to cleanse Iraqi society of its culture of corruption. As an example, Habib recounted a recent conversation with an Iraqi police officer whose job was to impound weapons. The cop, who had been paid a pittance under Hussein, was allowing people to keep their firearms for a modest payment.

Habib chastised him, noting that Americans have increased public-sector pay tenfold to remove one of the major motivations for graft.

"Why are you doing this?" Habib asked the policeman. The officer's answer: "I used to do this, and now I can't stop it."

To better understand the challenge facing those who would stamp out graft in the new Iraq, consider the case of Walid Kashmoola's ceiling.

The former Iraqi army general, who lost his military post after falling out of favor with Hussein in 1991, has been appointed as the head of the country's first anti-corruption office. But just as the unit was getting off the ground in the northern city of Mosul, the January rains came and Kashmoola's office ceiling caved in.

Now he is bivouacked in spare quarters in a government complex on the outskirts of the city. The same contractors who built his shoddy old roof are hammering away on his new one. Like most everyone in Iraq, they too are rumored to be corrupt.

The Mosul anti-corruption office is the brainchild of Lt. Col. Rich Whitaker, a military lawyer who was responsible for reviving the legal system in Iraq's northern provinces. In the days after the war, as he tried to rebuild a semblance of a government, he was swamped by accusations of graft.

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