Iraq's top corruption fighter claimed he had been threatened with death after opening an investigation into scores of oil ministry employees.
In the chaos and lawlessness of Iraq, such threats are not taken lightly. Radi al-Radhi, who runs the Public Integrity Commission, leads one of the more dangerous missions in the country today. He said in an interview with The Associated Press that 20 members of the organization have been murdered since it began its work.
In perhaps the most publicized recent case, an estimated US$2 billion (Ђ1.5 billion) went missing from funds to rebuild the country's creaking electricity infrastructure.
Former Electricity Minister Ayham al-Samaraie, who holds both U.S. and Iraqi citizenship, was convicted in the case but escaped from an Iraqi-run jail in the Green Zone Dec. 17. and turned up in Chicago Jan. 15.
He is a partner in the KCI Engineering Consultants firm in Downers Grove, Illinois and was serving a two-year sentence involving the missing US$2 billion.
Al-Samaraie has said his escape was aided by Americans, but he gave few details during a news conference in the United Arab Emirates shortly before his return to the United States.
Al-Radhi said the commission had investigated about 2,600 other corruption cases since it was established in March 2004, a few months before the United States returned sovereignty to Iraq. He estimated US$8 billion had vanished or been misappropriated.
Corruption in the country, while traditionally rampant, is encouraged by constitutional clause 136 B, al-Radhi said. The measure gives Cabinet ministers the power to block his investigations of their departments.
So far, he said, ministers had blocked probes into what he estimated to involve the theft or misspending of an additional US$55 million in public funds.
Two years ago he asked the Constitutional Court to strike the clause, but the panel so far has never issued a ruling, al-Radhi said.
On Wednesday, he took the matter to Parliament Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, who promised to back his efforts before the court, al-Radhi said. Al-Mashhadani's office confirmed in a statment that they met and said the parliament speaker promissed to back the anti-corruption move.
Senior government officials and Cabinet ministers are accused of in a variety of schemes.
In February, for example, U.S. and Iraqi forces had seized deputy Health Minister Hakim al-Zamili, a supporter of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
He reportedly orchestrated several kickback schemes related to inflated contracts for equipment and services, with millions of dollars allegedly funneled to the Mahdi Army militia that is loyal to al-Sadr.
Al-Zamili was suspected of providing large-scale employment of militia members who used Health Ministry facilities and services for "sectarian kidnapping and murder," the U.S. military said at the time of his arrest.
Al-Radhi said that after starting an investigation of 180 Oil Ministry employees in the oil-rich southern province of Basra, he and another colleague received death threats.
"I and Haidar Ashour, our representative in southern Iraq, have received threats by telephone accusing us of being former regime elements (supporters of ousted and executed former leader Saddam Hussein)," said al-Radhi. He was a judge during the ex-leader's rule, a job that required al-Radhi to join Saddam's Baath Party.
"'If you don't stop the investigation, you will be killed,"' al-Radhi quoted the caller as saying. The threat was issued in the name of the little-known Southern Region Movement.
Commission records show arrest warrants have been issued for about 90 former Iraqi officials, including 15 ministers, on charges of corruption. Most have fled the country
In October, parliament removed immunity from lawmaker Mishan al-Jabouri, opening the door for prosecutors to charge him of siphoning off some $7 million (Ђ5.24 million) a month intended to pay for food for three units of the pipeline protection force.
Former Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan, who served under then Prime Minister Ayad Allawi in 2004 and early 2005, is facing corruption allegations involving $1 billion (Ђ750 million) in missing funds. Shaalan has denied any wrongdoing.
The Iraq war has proven a temptation for many in the United States as well.
A quarterly audit released Jan. 31 by Stuart Bowen Jr., the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, found the US$300 billion U.S. war and reconstruction effort continues to be plagued with waste and corruption.
Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, held hearings earlier this year on the role of Halliburton Co., the oilfield-services company that Vice President Dick Cheney once headed that has received millions of dollars of government contracts.
According to Bowen's report, the State Department paid $43.8 million to contractor DynCorp International for the residential camp for police training personnel outside of Baghdad's Adnan Palace grounds that has stood empty for months. About $4.2 million of the money was improperly spent on 20 VIP trailers and an Olympic-size pool, all ordered by the Iraqi Ministry of Interior but never authorized by the U.S.
U.S. officials spent another $36.4 million for weapons such as armored vehicles, body armor and communications equipment that can't be accounted for. DynCorp also may have prematurely billed $18 million in other potentially unjustified costs, the report said.
Early on in the U.S. occupation of Iraq, hundreds of millions of dollars were wasted on unnecessary and overpriced equipment for the Iraqi army.
Much of that waste came during Allawi's tenure as transitional prime minister after U.S. occupation authorities turned over sovereignty to Iraqis on June 28, 2004.
Iraqi investigators probed several weapons and equipment deals engineered by one-time procurement officer Ziad Cattan and other defense officials.
One case involves Polish weapons maker Bumar, which signed a US$236 million contract in December 2004 to equip the Iraqi army with helicopters, ambulances, pistols, machine guns and water storage tanks. Added to other deals, Bumar's contracts with the Iraqi army totaled nearly $300 million.
Iraqi officials said that when Iraqi experts traveled to Europe to check on their purchase of the transport choppers, they discovered the aircraft, which cost tens of millions of dollars, were 28 years old and outdated. They refused to take them and returned home empty-handed.
Another case involving Cattan was a deal to purchase 7.62 mm bullets, used in machine guns and rifles. Iraqi officials said the bullets should have cost between 4 and 6 cents apiece but the ministry was eventually charged 16 cents per bullet.