With Congress and the White House engaging in yet another round of debate on the Iraq War, a former Iraqi judge who was–and who still may be–the chief anti-corruption officer of the Iraqi government has a tough message for anyone concerned about Iraq: The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is so riddled with corruption it ought to be totally scrapped. Radhi al-Radhi, who since 2004 has headed the Commission on Public Integrity (CPI), an independent Iraqi institution that tries to investigate and prosecute corrupt Iraqi officials, offers this damning indictment of the Iraqi government at a time when Maliki and his allies are mounting a fierce attack against him and attempting to replace Radhi with a Maliki loyalist who himself has been arrested on corruption charges.
Last week I posted an article disclosing that a team of officials at the US embassy in Baghdad had drafted a secret report detailing rampant corruption and criminality throughout the Iraqi government. The embassy report notes that corruption is “the norm in many ministries” and that Maliki has consistently blocked the work of Radhi and the Commission on Public Integrity. Four days later, Maliki held a press conference in Baghdad and fiercely denounced Radhi. He accused Radhi of corruption–without offering any specifics. Maliki announced that Radhi would be prosecuted and that the Parliament was about to forcibly retire him. The prime minister also claimed that the CPI chief had fled the country. Three days after that, the Iraqi government named Moussa Faraj to replace Radhi.
While all this was happening, Radhi, who is depicted in the secret embassy report as a diligent and brave investigator, was in the United States, not fleeing but leading a delegation of CPI investigators attending a training session in Washington. I spoke with him yesterday about his own predicament and that of his nation. He laughs off Maliki’s charges as a bogus and transparent attempt to end investigations probing Maliki’s political allies, and he is quite blunt in his assessment of the Maliki government.
Radhi, a secular Shia, is a compact, 62-year-old man with a salt-and-pepper mustache and receding gray hair. It’s easy to see the dent on his head where he was smashed by a rifle butt one of the two times he was imprisoned during the Saddam Hussein years. He rolls up a sleeve to show a long deep scar that he says he received during torture sessions and notes that his back is covered with similar marks.
The first point he wants to make–and he does so emphatically–is that he did not slip out of Iraq to escape prosecution, as Maliki has implied. Radhi explains that he came to the United States with ten CPI investigators who are being taught how to use a lie detector. (I’ve confirmed that such training is under way.) He takes out his passport. It contains an Iraqi stamp indicating he legally departed the country on August 22. “Maliki is making up stories to blame me for stuff,” Radhi remarks. The prime minister’s press conference, Radhi says, was a stunt designed to pressure Radhi not to return to Iraq: “They want to get rid of me because I have lots of important files that could be used to indict his ministers.”
Radhi confirms that the secret embassy report’s description of widespread corruption within the Maliki government is accurate: “This is what’s going on. The government has failed in doing its job.” He estimates that the various ministries, hampered by fraud and waste, are only meeting between 2 and 5 percent of their obligations. He says that $7 billion has been pocketed or wasted at the Ministry of Defense, that the same has happened to $4 billion at the Ministry of Electricity. “At other ministries,” he adds, “it’s half a billion dollars here, a quarter of a billion dollars there. You can imagine the whole number. It works like the Mafia.”
Radhi’s problem, he maintains, is that he wants to do something about all this–and that means trouble for the Shia-dominated government led by Maliki. “When I prosecuted Sunni ministers, they clapped for me,” he remarks. “When I prosecuted Kurdish ministers, they clapped for me. But when I went after Shia ministers, they came after me and said I’m the corrupted one.”
Maliki’s campaign against Radhi is nothing new. Last year, Maliki sent Radhi a letter essentially accusing him of not accounting for hundreds of thousands of dollars spent by the Commission on Public Integrity. According to the secret embassy report, an initial audit of the CPI uncovered management problems (not criminal conduct) and a subsequent audit was “glowing.”
Sabah al-Saidi, a Shia leader who heads the Parliament’s anticorruption committee and who has joined Maliki in the latest campaign against Radhi, has also been trying for a year to undermine the CPI by charging Radhi with graft. Radhi maintains that he earned Saidi’s wrath because the CPI was investigating oil smuggling in Basra and its investigators believed this criminal activity was linked to Saidi’s Fadillah party. Radhi’s CPI pursued about 90 cases involving oil smuggling and corruption in Basra, and these cases were blocked from reaching court. The secret embassy report corroborates this point, noting that investigating corruption in Basra has been nearly impossible. The report describes an occasion when Radhi asked Maliki to support probes in Basra targeting the Fadillah party and Shia militias and Maliki “just went quiet.” (According to a Radhi associate who asked not to be identified, oil smugglers in Basra routinely pay militias to safeguard oil pipelines and some of this protection money ends up with anti-American insurgents.)
Radhi says he has never had a case that directly involved Maliki. But he maintains that he has initiated several investigations of officials close to Maliki–including a minister of oil and a Maliki relative who used to head the Ministry of Transportation–and Maliki’s office and other ministries shut down these cases, citing a law known as Article 136B. This provision in Iraq’s criminal code–a provision that Maliki revived– allows the prime minister or a minister to order a court to end a prosecution.
And earlier this year, Radhi notes, Maliki’s office issued a secret order that forced the criminal courts to close all ongoing cases against past and present ministers and deputy ministers. (I have a copy of that memo.) About three dozen investigations were shuttered. With another secret memo, Radhi says, Maliki’s office ended the prosecution of a key Maliki adviser on oil policy. And as we talk, Radhi pulls out yet one more secret memo, dated June 18, 2007, in which the prime minister instructed Radhi to dismiss one of the CPI’s best investigators. Radhi refused. A month later, Maliki’s office sent Radhi another memo reiterating this order. “I kept him,” Radhi says.
Radhi notes that last year he had a “big case” involving one of Maliki’s top national security aides. The official was given a large amount of money to fund a weapons buyback program in Sadr City, a Baghdad neighborhood controlled by the militia of Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. According to Radhi, the Maliki aide was suspected of having pocketed some of the money to buy a building for himself in London and of having passed weapons he had collected to militias. “When we looked into this,” Radhi recalls, “the prime minister’s office closed the case–using Rule 136. We had evidence in this case. And that’s when they started to attack us.”
Of Maliki, Radhi says, “he’s not corrupt, but the group around him–all of them are corrupt. And he has to support them, because he’s of their party.”
Corruption within the Iraqi government, Radhi says, “is increasing day by day.” The government’s budget for 2007 (including funds left over from 2006) is $71 billion, he remarks, yet “you see no reconstruction, and we still don’t have oil or electricity and no security from the Ministry of Defense or the Ministry of the Interior, and they’re each spending billions of dollars.” Five million Iraqis have left the country, he says, yet the Ministry of Trade is still spending the same amount of funds for ration cards–apparently for people who no longer live in Iraq: “Where is the money going? No one knows.” The Ministry of Health, he complains, has imported billions of dollars in medicine and medical equipment, “but we don’t see medicine and equipment in hospitals. It’s going to political parties or militias.”
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Radhi still considers himself chief of the Commission on Public Integrity. His forcible retirement, he says, is illegal–and so is the appointment of his successor. (In a letter sent to Maliki two days ago, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, the Sunni speaker of the Parliament, declared Radhi’s removal “illegal and unconstitutional.”) Regardless of the legality of Radhi’s ouster, Moussa Faraj, who has been named Radhi’s replacement, is an odd pick for the job. He was once a deputy at the CPI–having been installed at the commission by the ruling Shia Alliance Party. According to the secret U.S. embassy report on corruption, Faraj regularly prosecuted and delayed cases on “sectarian bases.” Worse, the report notes that Faraj, a political ally of Sabah al-Saidi (the Parliament leader who has assailed Radhi), once “allowed a Shia Alliance member [charged in a multi-million-dollar corruption case] to escape custody.” And after Faraj was dismissed from the CPI, the report says, he stole “literally a car load of case files.” An arrest warrant was issued for him.
Several weeks ago, according to Radhi and his investigators, Faraj was arrested, placed in prison, and subsequently released on bail. “How can he be in jail and then be head of the integrity commission?” Radhi asks. Putting the CPI in Faraj’s hands, Radhi says, will allow Maliki’s office and Saidi to control its actions and prevent the commission from conducting investigations that inconvenience them and their political confederates. It will mean, he claims, the end of any meaningful anticorruption effort in Iraq.
Radhi says he hopes to return to Iraq and the CPI: “I want to go back and work because Iraq needs and deserves a clean government. You cannot rebuild Iraq without fighting corruption. We cannot stop the insurgency without blocking its source of funding, and corruption produces funds for the insurgents.” But he has no clear strategy for undoing his forcible removal or for countering Maliki’s moves against him. Radhi concedes he does not have a lot of options: “I don’t have a political party or a gang supporting me.”
This summer, there were two rocket attacks on his home. And the Iraqi government has informed him that his retirement benefits (80 percent of his salary) will be based on the pay of low-level government functionary (about $700 a month) not the income of a government minister (about $8000 a month), even though the CPI chief is considered the equivalent of a minister. For the time being, he may be stranded in the United States. And it’s unclear how much the US government will help him, if at all.
“The people now running Iraq are corrupted themselves,” Radhi says. “The only solution left is a new government, with a secular government of technocrats, not a religious government politicized by certain groups. Iraqi society is a civil society. The people deserve a civil government.” He hopes the Bush Administration will pressure the Maliki government to follow the law “so no new dictatorship will be born.” But is it realistic to expect any of this? A wholesale change in the Iraqi government? The Bush administration leaning on Maliki and forcing an end to systemic corruption? After all, the secret corruption report–which the Bush administration has not yet acknowledged–notes that the US Embassy in Baghdad has done little to bolster anticorruption programs and that Defense Department officials have blocked investigations of certain Iraqi officials. “I know it’s difficult,” Radhi says with a deep and sad sigh. “I’m not a political guy.”
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