Iraqi Corruption Starts at the Top

Corruption is so widespread in Iraq that it is treated as part of every day life. People pay bribes for almost everything including passport applications, jobs and food rations. Both the U.S. and Iraqi inspectors general say the corruption starts on top.

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Violence may be the most obvious problem in Iraq, but there's another. And, according to one American official, it's a major obstacle to Iraq's reconstruction. The problem is corruption. Iraqis pay bribes for passport applications, jobs, and even food. What makes it especially pervasive is that the corruption starts at the top.

NPR's Jamie Tarabay reports from Baghdad.

JAMIE TARABAY: At this gas station in Baghdad, customers stand in line for hours, but it's not first-come, first-serve. It's one of Iraq's greatest ironies. This country sits on the second largest proven oil reserves in the world, and people not only have to queue for gasoline, they pay bribes to skip ahead. They pay traffic police to dodge fines for broken taillights, and on days when only cars with license plates ending in odd numbers are allowed to drive, those with even numbers pay just to be on the street.

Mr. ABDULLAH MAHMOUD(ph) (Former Government Employee): (Through translator) Bribery is a disease.

TARABAY: Abdullah Mahmoud is a retired government employee. He says the corruption is new, a product of the post-war chaos. And only stability up top can bring corruption under control.

Mr. MAHMOUD: (Through translator) It can only end with a better security system; better supervision. People who step forward because of their conscious, people who consider this is a crime against other citizens.

TARABAY: Mahmoud says it's practically a joke among Iraqis. Newspapers regularly run cartoons depicting the typical Iraqi man as poor, with dirty, worn clothes, and the government as a fat man in a suit and sunglasses. Money spills from the fat man's pockets, while the poor Iraqi is left with nothing in his hands but empty promises.

Stuart Bowen is a special inspector general for Iraq's reconstruction. He's here to audit and investigate shoddy workmanship and possible fraud among U.S. contractors. But he says there are problems with the Iraqis as well.

Mr. STUART BOWEN (Special Investigator General): Corruption is endemic, that's what I've heard Iraqi officials describe it to me. And the IGs have, you know, hundreds and hundreds of reports documenting concerns about corruption.

TARABAY: One of the biggest cases of corruption involves Iraq's oil ministry, which the Committee for Public Integrity estimates has amounted to a loss of some $4 billion. Smuggling is one of the main problems. Authorities have given up on maintaining Iraq's northern oil pipeline to Turkey because it's been blown up so many times by saboteurs. So now, oil exports from the north are shipped out by tanker trucks, and that's where the smuggling occurs.

Again, Stuart Bowen.

Mr. BOWEN: You're depending on drivers who are going to carryout their mission, and who are going to take it and sell it for their own benefit. And indeed, the problem with smuggling is tied significantly to that issue.

TARABAY: Judge Radi Hamza Radi, the head of Iraq's Committee for Public Integrity, has told Bowen that of the 3,000 state-owned trucks shipping oil to the north, 2,000 are involved in smuggling. The committee has hundreds of investigations looking into the different Iraqi ministries, which Bowen says has caused controversy within the Iraqi government.

Mr. BOWEN: The point of controversy is the right, under Iraqi criminal law, to imprison a suspect during the course of the investigation.

TARABAY: The controversy doesn't end there. Now Judge Radi is himself the target of a corruption probe. Sheikh Sabat Zahid(ph) is the head of parliamentary commission into corruption. He recently held a news conference showing what he said were documents proving that Radi was defrauding the government.

Mr. SHEIKH SABAT ZAHID (Parliamentary Commission Member): (Through translator) There are accusations against Radi and the case has been brought before the judicial authorities, and we do not intervene in their business.

TARABAY: They have, however, asked for a travel ban, but Radi is either in Italy or Switzerland, and it's not clear when or if he'll return to Iraq.

Corruption is also stemming the flow of revenue into a country desperately short of funds. The billions already committed by the United States for reconstruction have all been spent or earmarked for ongoing projects. The burden is now on the Iraqis.

Jamie Tarabay, NPR News, Baghdad.

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