BAGHDAD — It's been a corruption scandal worthy of its name, complete with a shootout and a sexy video showing officials cavorting with scantily clad women. It all came to a fittingly dramatic conclusion Saturday when the man at the center of the saga tried to flee the country and Iraqi authorities ordered his plane to turn back mid-flight.
When the plane landed at Baghdad's airport, Abdul Falah Sudani, the country's trade minister until he was forced to resign last week, was promptly arrested.
Sudani is accused of procuring substandard foodstuffs for Iraq's food-ration program, but the allegations against his ministry go beyond that. Omar Abdul Sattar, a member of the Iraqi parliament's anti-corruption committee, said the money skimmed from the program could amount to "hundreds of millions of dollars."
The arrest comes as part of an intensified effort to crack down on graft.
Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has called for a war on corruption to equal the one on terrorism, and billboards have been posted across Baghdad proclaiming that "corruption is the breeding ground for terrorism" in blood-dripping letters.
Sudani is the highest-ranking former government official to be formally charged with corruption since 2006, when a former electricity minister was accused of overseeing more than $1 billion worth of improperly awarded contracts. The former minister escaped from his Green Zone jail cell in 2006 and resurfaced in Chicago.
Allegations of corruption swirl around virtually every Iraqi government department, and Iraqis are expected to pay bribes for just about every government service, from pensions to the issuance of their national identity documents.
Last year, the international watchdog group Transparency International ranked Iraq the second-most-corrupt country, behind Somalia.
Iraq's Integrity Commission, a government agency charged with investigating graft, said last week that it was planning to issue arrest warrants for 997 government officials, in addition to 387 warrants already served.
The Trade Ministry has always been particularly notorious because of its role in procuring the food rations that are still widely distributed. Most Iraqis are familiar with lumpy sugar, flour past its expiration date and reduced quantities in their monthly rations.
The scandal erupted into public late last month when police officers who went to a Trade Ministry building to serve arrest warrants on nine officials were fired on by the ministry's guards. During the 15-minute gun battle, all but one of the wanted officials, the ministry's spokesman, escaped out a back door.
Two of them were Sudani's brothers, who were employed as guards in the ministry and are accused of skimming millions of dollars from food import contracts. One brother was later arrested in southern Iraq; the other is still being sought.
Then came the circulation of a video clip showing the minister's brother and spokesman laughing and joking as two women dance around them. "Maliki will sacrifice for you," one of the officials calls out, in a compliment to the women but an insult to the Islamist prime minister. Sudani is a member of a branch of Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party and is reputed to be close to him.
Legislators summoned Sudani to appear before parliament but decided against a public airing of the video because it was deemed too racy. In any case, it had already spread rapidly across Iraq's cellphone network, and eventually it surfaced on YouTube. Sudani's downfall is in part attributable to the efforts of a reinvigorated Iraqi parliament under the leadership of Speaker Iyad Samarrai, who took office last month. Legislators had been seeking to question Sudani for more than a year, but under Samarrai's ineffectual predecessor, the summons never materialized.
When Sudani did eventually appear before parliament, he refused to answer most of the questions put to him. But faced with a no-confidence vote that would have forced Maliki to fire him, he resigned last week.
Legislators say they won't stop with the Trade Ministry. There are plans also to summon the ministers of oil and electricity, among others, said Sattar, the legislator.
"Many legislators have signed petitions to host many ministers," he said. "We are just opening the door on this."
Times staff writers Usama Redha and Raheem Salman contributed to this report.