Iraqi Graft Probe Expected to Net Scores of Officials

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Iraqi authorities are expected to issue an arrest warrant for the former defense minister in connection with the theft or misappropriation of more than $1 billion. The head of Iraq's commission on public integrity says he anticipates corruption charges will soon to be filed against another 50 officials.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

In Iraq today, US officials said the number of American servicepeople killed topped 1,900. That milestone comes amid stinging recriminations between British and Iraqi officials about the storming of a Basra jail to free two British soldiers. The two had fallen into the hands of Shiite Muslim militiamen. Iraqi officials said the raid violated their sovereignty.

BLOCK: On another front, Iraqi authorities are expected to issue an arrest warrant for the former defense minister in connection with the theft or misappropriation of more than $1 billion. This is the most dramatic corruption case yet unveiled in Baghdad. And the head of Iraq's Commission on Public Integrity says he anticipates corruption charges will soon be filed against another 50 officials. NPR's Anne Garrels has more from Baghdad.

ANNE GARRELS reporting:

For a little over a year and a half 60-year-old Radhi al-Radhi has braved threats. Six of his anti-corruption team of a hundred investigators have been murdered. Nonetheless, this soft-spoken former judge, in his thick glasses, has continued to scrutinize the work of the country's new ministries.

Mr. RADHI AL-RADHI (Commission on Public Integrity, Iraq): (Foreign language spoken)

GARRELS: He says proudly his staff at the Commission on Public Integrity has provided investigative courts with files on 1,500 cases. He estimates the total amount of money that vanished or was wasted could be as much as $2 billion. Most, though by no means all, the questionable contracts were signed under the previous government headed by Ayad Allawi, which served from June 2004 until late February this year.

Radhi points at the Transportation, Trade, Housing, Labor and Interior ministries, but he says by far the worst offender was the Ministry of Defense and the man who headed it, Hazem al-Shaalan. According to Radhi, Shaalan signed contracts with intermediaries rather than with foreign companies or governments, as stipulated by law. Prices paid were vastly inflated and contracts often not fulfilled.

The Iraqi armed forces, meanwhile, are woefully underequipped, and the current defense minister, Saadoun al-Dulaimi, has said when he took over the ministry in late April, there was next to nothing left in the procurement budget. Shaalan, who now lives in Jordan, has issued a statement denying the charges, suggesting they're politically motivated. He demands an impartial, outside party review the evidence.

Under current Iraqi law, foreign nationals from the international coalition in Iraq cannot be prosecuted here. But Radhi blames American advisers at the Defense Ministry for, at the very least, turning a blind eye.

Mr. AL-RADHI: (Foreign language spoken)

GARRELS: `Why,' he asks, `were they silent when they saw corruption was rampant?'

One reason corruption is so widespread, according to Radhi, is that the contracts drawn up under the supervision of the US government's Project and Contracting Office are badly written, opening a door to plunder. Colonel Edward Cardon agrees. Cardon is the American commander of the 4th Brigade Combat Team and an engineer.

Colonel EDWARD CARDON (American Commander, 4th Brigade Combat Team): There's a lot of complaint here about corruption, but it's hard to go against corruption when you look at the way the contract's written. And it's so vague, you could pretty much build anything and be paid for it.

GARRELS: And after two and a half years, Cardon says projects are still often ill-conceived, wasting large amounts of money.

Col. CARDON: They'll just use sewage pump stations. We'll fix the sewage pump station, but we don't spend any money on operations and maintenance. And I'm trying to get that built into these projects, and they--that seems to be having an impact.

GARRELS: The military, already stretched thin, is responsible for supervising small projects in its area of operation. Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Farrell, a battalion commander in East Baghdad, spends valuable time following up on corrupt Iraqi contractors.

Lieutenant Colonel KEVIN FARRELL (Brigade Commander): There was a playground case in Obeidi that was truly a chamber of horrors.

GARRELS: After firing several contractors, the result was still a disaster.

Lt. Col. FARRELL: It was just accidents waiting to happen: rusted, pseudo-Ferris wheel, just sharp metal shards everywhere. Nothing would work. And, in the end, it just was a dump literally. But it's fixed now.

GARRELS: Many projects have had to be scrapped or started all over again.

Depressing as all this is, Radhi al-Radhi believes official corruption is less than it was because of his commission's work. However, he says, the levels remain unacceptable. He's currently looking into another 4,000 cases. Anne Garrels, NPR News, Baghdad.

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