Graft the next great hurdle to a 'new' Iraq

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BAQUBA, Iraq — As violence in Iraq continues to decline overall, the top concern for many Iraqis has shifted from security to corruption, as they look to their government to restore long-absent central services, such as regular electricity and clean water.

The bad news for the Iraqis and their government officials is that in the eyes of many, corruption in present-day Iraq is worse than it was under Saddam Hussein.

That's according to Transparency International’s annual corruption perceptions index, which ranks countries in order from the least perceived corruption to the most. During the year of the U.S. invasion in 2003, Iraq ranked 113 out of 133 countries surveyed. In 2008, it had fallen to 178 out of 180 countries surveyed.

“Corruption is very bad in the government. I have to give them money to get anything done. Who will listen to our complaints?” says Hamra Imbara, a resident of Chubiernot, a town on the edge of this city in the northern Diyala Province. And now that American forces have begun reducing their presence after withdrawing from the cities on June 30, Imbara fears that corruption may worsen, with less oversight from the U.S. military that she says sometimes intervened on her behalf in dealing with dubious officials.

Nathaniel Heller, managing director of Global Integrity, a governance and corruption research group in Washington, D.C., says that as Iraqis work to establish a unified, central government, their ability to tackle the corruption problem will play a critical role in determining the country’s future success. Although the government is taking steps to combat the problem, it must make noticeable headway in order to avoid losing public support and driving people back to sectarian leaders.

Without addressing the corruption problem, “you completely erode and undermine the public’s trust in government at a certain point,” Heller says. “At that point, people start to really detach themselves from government, they start to look to tribal leaders, sectarian leaders, to others as a source of authority and power. And I think one would have to argue that in an Iraqi context that’s certainly not helpful.”

This summer has provided the country with several potent reminders of how deep the problem runs. After stepping down as minister of trade due to massive embezzlement allegations, authorities arrested Abdul Falah Sudani at the airport as he was trying to flee the country.

Then, Abdul Razaq al-Khalisi and Auf Rahum, two former deputy governors in Diyala fled to Kurdistan and Germany facing allegations that they’d defrauded the government of $130 million.

For the average Iraqi citizen the current level of corruption means it’s difficult to accomplish many tasks, whether getting a government job or obtaining a permit, without greasing someone’s palm. In Baghdad, for example, real estate agents say that under Saddam, the process of buying a house generally required less than 10 bribes. Now it’s not uncommon to pay up to 25, which can range from giving a doorman $20 to let you into a government office, all the way up to several thousand dollars to get the right permits from higher-ranking officials.

For those dealing with the aftermath of the war, corruption has added hurdles to already difficult jobs.

Iraqi Army Lt. Col. Satwan Dalow Haji is responsible for monitoring a number of government reconstruction projects in the Diyala Province and says that he’s discovered several fake or mismanaged projects.

In particular there’s been a problem with contractors getting paid too early. Legally, contractors are not allowed to receive payment until they’ve completed 75 percent of the work on a given project. This is often not the case, says Haji. Now, work has stopped on a number of projects and it remains unclear when it will start again.

For the Iraqi Army, which is depending on displaced people to return in order to help maintain security gains, this threatens credibility they’ve fought hard to earn. "People are very angry. There are many displaced people and the [Iraqi] army promised them if they returned they would provide services. Now these people say we lied to them," Haji says.

A number of citizens harbor concerns about the integrity of Iraqi security forces. While the Iraqi Army generally enjoys a reasonably sound reputation, many Iraqis worry about police extortion.

A prominent Iraqi official told U.S. Army Col. Burt Thompson that he believes Iraqi detention centers are a source of income for corrupt Iraqi police. "The perception, and maybe even the reality in some cases, is that these detainees that are in these prisons … are kind of an 'oil well' for the police that are running it if there are no checks and balances,” he says. Though he says that he has not seen proof of police extorting prisoners, he adds, “Sometimes perception is reality."

After decades of living under Saddam and the embargo years, many Iraqis have become comfortable living with a certain degree of corruption in their society. What is considered a bribe in the West, may be considered a normal cost of doing business in Iraq. The task ahead may well be finding a way to reduce excesses.

Still, there are signs of progress. General attitudes are shifting and there is increasingly less tolerance of unethical government conduct.

“You’re having a public environment in which corruption is seen as less and less acceptable and officials have to speak out against it,” says a Western diplomat in Iraq, speaking anonymously due to the sensitivity of the issue. Still, he adds that putting a stop to widespread corruption “will take a time and the progress will be measured in small steps.”