Tough fight against corruption seen in Iraq

BAGHDAD – Iraq’s political leaders have so far lacked the will to fight the “cancer” of corruption and should start by declaring how much money they earn, the country’s new anti-graft chief said.

Rahim al-Ugaili, a former judge appointed to replace Radhi al-Radhi as head of the Independent Integrity Commission after he fled the country, said the unit had so far failed to live up to its brief of ending rampant corruption.

“Corruption is just like cancer … we should take it on by long-term strategies,” Ugaili told Reuters in an interview.

“There has never been a political will to fight corruption and today the political will to do so is still weak,” said Ugaili, who began his new job last week.

Radhi fled Iraq last August after threats against him. He told U.S. lawmakers in October that the Iraqi government had lost $18 billion through corruption and that 31 integrity commission employees had been killed because of their work.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has rejected Radhi’s charges, accusing him of politicizing the independent anti-graft body.

Maliki has vowed tough measures against graft since taking up his post in 2006 but corruption remains rampant in Iraqi institutions.

Ugaili said his first act after taking over from Radhi was to demand all government offices provide the commission with detailed accounts of their use of public funds.

He said the next step would be for all members of Iraq’s Council of Representatives, or parliament, to declare how much money they earn and detail all their sources of income.

“Up to now members of parliament have abstained from declaring how much money they are taking,” Ugaili said.

“There is no transparency in the Council of Representatives. We have heard they are willing to halve their salaries and still we don’t know how much money they are taking,” he said.

Ugaili said it was important to bridge a yawning gap between the salaries of elected officials and those of civil servants, who can earn as little as $200 a month.

Such poor remuneration meant there was heavy temptation for civil servants to add to their salaries by accepting bribes or other forms of graft.

“This situation cannot stand. We have to find a balance so that the civil servant feels that he is doing the right job without feeling injustice and will stay away from corruption,” Ugaili said.

Ugaili said a raft of laws needed to be addressed to toughen the fight against corruption, including the process for administering bids for government contracts.

He urged a return to a law put in place by Iraq’s U.S. administrators after the 2003 invasion to topple Saddam Hussein which centralized the tender process for government contracts under one office.

“Cancelling this law was a huge legal mistake,” he said.

Appointments to public positions also needed to be brought back under control. Ugaili said Saddam had closed down a public service council in 1997 so that he alone determined who was appointed to state jobs.

Such appointments have been divided up among political blocs since Saddam fell, Ugaili said.

“This helped the spread of corruption … by putting people in offices who are not qualified to hold them,” he said.

Ugaili said it was too early to tell whether he would be able to end corruption in Iraq.

“Corruption is everywhere, all over the world. It can only be controlled, not eliminated,” he said.

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