Iraqi Trade Ministry Investigated For Corruption

For the first time, an Iraqi government minister faces expulsion from his job after being accused of corruption on a massive scale.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Stories of corruption are common in Iraq. Prosecutions for corruption are not. This week for the first time a government minister could lose his job. He's the target of one of the few corruption investigations in a country where people pay bribes to get official papers, to pass the traffic police, to handle real estate taxes or even to get a share of government programs. NPR's JJ Sutherland has been traveling to Baghdad for years. He's there now.

And, JJ, what is this minister, the minister of trade, accused of?

JJ SUTHERLAND: Well, Falah Al-Sudani and nine officials in his ministry, including two of his brothers - well, the trade ministry oversees the ration program, a program here in Iraq that gives food, cooking oil, soap, etc., to every single Iraqi family. It's a huge program. And they were getting kickbacks on just about everything. Sugar is the biggest one. But they also bought things like baby formula that were expired and passed it off as the real thing.

They still haven't even caught everyone who's been charged. When the police showed up at the trade ministry to arrest some people a few days ago, a gunfight actually broke out between the police and the ministry guards.

INSKEEP: Now, you say that he did these things. I suppose we should try to check the legalities of this. Has the trade minister actually been arrested, indicted, convicted, anything?

SUTHERLAND: Well, he hasn't been arrested yet. He still has immunity from prosecution because he's a government minister. So the parliament has introduced a no confidence measure. And this will be voted on next week. If it passes, his immunity will be stripped from it.

But what's interesting is over the weekend there were two days of televised testimony of this minister being questioned by parliament. And this is the first time any government minister has been questioned on corruption charges in the three years they've been in office. And Iraqis are incredibly cynical about their government, seeing it as ineffective and corrupt. And to see the grilling of a government minister was just remarkable.

So they vote on his expulsion next week, and then if that passes he will be liable for prosecution.

INSKEEP: How did Iraqis respond to all that televised testimony?

SUTHERLAND: With incredible enthusiasm. There are handmade banners going up around the city praising the head of parliament's anti-corruption committee, Sabah al-Saedi. And the move by parliament is really something they haven't seen before. It's seen as a debating society, not a legislative body that gets things done.

And we even spoke to one guy who works for parliament. And he said he used to be ashamed of working there, because they didn't do anything. He hid his badge when he left the office. But now he says he's wearing it with pride.

INSKEEP: Well, why is it that parliament now is going after this guy whose powers appear, from what you say, to reach into almost every corner of Iraqi life?

SUTHERLAND: Well, it depends on who you ask, of course. But many people are saying it's rooted in politics. The trade minister is a member of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa Party. And a lot of people, including a lot of MPs, are seeing this as an attack on the prime minister.

The Dawa Party did really well in provincial elections that were held just a few months ago. And national elections have just been set for January of next year. And many parties are afraid that Maliki's extreme popularity in Iraq might dramatically change the makeup of the future parliament, so all the politicians are maneuvering ahead of those elections; of course the ones moving the anti-corruption campaign forward saying it's because they're honor bound to do so and they say this is only the first minister they're going to call to the docket, with the oil minister, the electricity minister, the labor minister and another of others still to come.

But as one MP told me, you can fight corruption and play politics at the same time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Well, it's good that they're honest about it.

SUTHERLAND: Yeah, you know, I think they're very realistic.

INSKEEP: NPR's JJ Sutherland is in Baghdad.

JJ, thanks very much.

INSKEEP: You're welcome, Steve.

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