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AFP
October 17, 2019

Iraq’s anti-corruption drive stops short of snaring worst culprits

World

AFP
October 17, 2019

BAGHDAD: Following a wave of deadly anti-government protests, Baghdad has announced a slew of measures to stem corruption -- but stopped short of targeting the worst offenders.

Analysts say Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi, an independent with no real popular support, is hostage to the parties that appointed him a year ago to lead one of the world’s most corrupt countries.

That makes it exceptionally hard for him to point fingers at the main culprits, they say. Since dictator Saddam Hussein’s ouster in a US-led invasion in 2003, $450 billion have evaporated into thin air, either in fake contracts or deep into the pockets of corrupt politicians, according to official data.

"The question of corruption can only be dealt with seriously and decisively," a government anti-corruption official said, speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the subject.

"But the prime minister can’t do that because he knows that all (politicians) are involved and that they were chin deep in corrupt dealings well before he took up his post," the official said. Anti-graft campaign group Transparency International last year ranked Iraq the world’s 12th-most corrupt country, based on expert analysis and opinion surveys.

The problem is so endemic that Iraqis have a nickname for the biggest culprits: "hitan", Arabic for "whales". The official cited three common practises: border guards taking bribes to waive customs duties, illegal petrol trading, and unlawful buying and selling of state-owned land and luxury homes.

The final practice, sometimes involving properties confiscated from ex-regime officials, implicates some parties and politicians currently in power, the official said.

An official from the office of the petroleum ministry’s inspector general said "many incidents of corruption" had been uncovered. The department "managed to stop the construction of an oil pipeline to Jordan, because each kilometre was being priced at $1.5 million", a price it deemed excessive, he said on condition of anonymity.

The operation snared oil traffickers and transport company owners "linked to corrupt parties", he added. But in a blow to officials working to tackle corruption, parliament has "frozen" the work of anti-corruption offices that had been set up in each of Iraq’s ministries.

"This decision does nothing to improve the day-to-day lives of demonstrators who are strangled by poverty," said the official, currently on enforced leave. "It’s only going to encourage corrupt officials to keep doing what they want."

According to the official from the government’s anti-corruption commission, the decision to freeze the inspectors’ activities "targets low-ranking civil servants, while it is the mafias from the big parties" who are most at fault.

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