Corruption or incompetence?
Why do Al-Maliki’s security forces still use a bogus detector which puts Iraqis’ lives at risk, asks Salah Nasrawi
With some 712 Iraqis killed in violence last month, April was Iraq’s bloodiest month in almost five years as ethno-sectarian tensions continue to rise and plague the sharply divided nation. Most of the victims were Shia Muslims who were killed in horrific bomb attacks that rocked cities across Iraq, which are widely believed to be the work of Al-Qaeda terrorist network. Some lethal bomb attacks also targeted Sunni mosques.
The attacks, which came amid a lingering Sunni-Shia government crisis, were reminiscent of those that led to a sectarian civil war following the US invasion in 2003 that toppled the Sunni-controlled regime of Saddam Hussein. The escalation has revealed widespread concerns about Iraq’s security forces’ failings; in particular, their inability to curb the terrible bombing operations which are responsible for the high death tolls.
Amidst the controversy lies a plastic pistol-shaped detector that Iraqi army and police have been using for years to detect explosives that experts have long ruled was not suitable for bomb detection. Iraq’s Interior Ministry began importing the British-made device through a front trading company based in Jordan in 2007 at a time when the country was gripped in its worst sectarian strife when terrorists were carrying out nearly daily sporadic bombings.
From the start, many Iraqis insisted the device was useless in detecting bombs, and joked at checkpoints as false alarms were raised over other things found in their cars such as perfumes, air fresheners or gold fillings in the passengers’ teeth. Last week the small hand-held device came into the limelight again when a London court ruled that the machine is bogus and sentenced its manufacturer Jim McCormick to 10 years in jail for selling the faked device to Iraq and other countries.
The court said the device is modelled on a £15 toy golf ball detector sold in the US as Golfinder and is utterly useless at sniffing out explosives. It said McCormick netted an estimated £60 million selling the cheap US novelty dowsing rods as sophisticated bomb and drug sniffing devices for up to $30,000 a piece. “The device was useless, the profit outrageous and your culpability as a fraudster has to be placed in the highest category,” a presiding judge told McCormick after issuing the sentence.
Yet, Iraqi soldiers are still walking past a line of cars checkpoints carrying the alleged bomb detector looking for its antenna to swing left, indicating a threat. Back in 2007, Iraq’s Interior Ministry spent over about $119.5 million on some 1,500 devices known as Advanced Detection Equipment, or ADE 651. Major General Jihad Al-Jabiri, head of the Interior Ministry’s General Directorate for Combating Explosive at the time, praised the device as very effective.
The device which McCormick claimed would detect all known drug and explosive based substances was instantly ruled as fake by experts. Research done by American forces in Iraq and Iraqi experts at the Ministry of Science and Technology also found that the device was not effective and did not work. Other studies concluded that the instruments had no working electronics in them that could detect bombs or anything else and do not provide more than a random chance of detecting a bomb.
The experts said daily shootings and bombings in Iraq have also been a testament to the failure of the device which is used at main checkpoints in Baghdad and many other cities. Al-Maliki’s government dismissed reports that the device was useless and its spokesman at the time Ali Al-Dabbagh told reporters that a government inquiry had found that “more than 50 per cent of the devices are good, and the rest we will change.”
Nevertheless, the bogus bomb detectors are still in use at checkpoints in place of physical or other inspections of cars. Policemen and army soldiers still stand under sheds erected over the roads with the device with its telescopic antenna on a swivel, pointing parallel to traffic, checking cars as they pass. If the device’s antenna points to a vehicle, it is usually directed to a second team in the checkpoint where thorough inspection is carried out by policemen or soldiers who also ask for identification.
Because it was not effective, McCormick’s bogus bomb detectors are believed to have contributed to the shedding of Iraqi blood. There is no way to know exactly how many innocent lives have been lost as a result. But Iraqi Body Count estimates that some 122,000 Iraqis have been killed in Iraq’s violence since 2003, many of them in bombing attacks or blasts.
Many Iraqis would love to see Iraqi officials responsible for the fraud behind bars for their role in the waste of Iraqi blood. Al-Jabiri, who was involved in the purchase of the devices, was referred to the judiciary and in 2011 he was jailed for four years, but no proper investigation was conducted, including the role of a Jordan-based firm which was an intermediary in the deal. Many Iraqis believe Al-Jabiri got a relatively light sentence in exchange for concealing names of alleged accomplices.
Corruption in post-US invasion Iraq has gone on for so long that it has lost some of its power to shock. Most of Iraq’s political elite are believed to be involved in one type or another of corruption, manipulating the economic system in order to extract rents they can use to secure control of the government. Some are believed to have set up bogus companies abroad to run dodgy business deal with the government through cronies.
Iraq’s Interior Ministry, which is headed by Al-Maliki himself, is among the most corrupt government departments in Iraq, raising concern that a greater security threat may come from within the system from the top commanders down to soldiers who man checkpoints. Internal reports on corruption by the ministry’s inspector general have specifically cited the bribery of checkpoint guards.
Senior police officers are reportedly buying their authority over particular neighbourhoods by bribing politicians while junior officers pay their seniors monthly stipends and everyone gets a return on their investment by extorting money from families of detainees who are arrested on false charges. The government inaction to investigate and bring criminal charges against Iraqi officials and businessmen who are believed to be responsible for the death of so many people and the reluctance to remove the device from checkpoints are quite puzzling.
Many Iraqis wonder why only one official was convicted and sent to jail for his part in the detectors’ scandal. They believe that the case involves many top officials at the Interior Ministry and the government whose signatures are required to make the deal. Other Iraqis question the security strategy of army and police commanders who have kept the devices operational at checkpoints despite the fact that they are ineffective.
Suicide bombers are still able to get explosives through checkpoints where these devices are used to kill people and destroy buildings. Demands are increasing for investigation and retribution.
On Saturday, Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr told Al-Maliki, who is also commander-in-chief of the armed forces, to apologise for the bogus detectors’ deal and “to exonerate” himself before the country’s judiciary and parliament. Al-Sadr also urged the government to order security forces to stop using the device at checkpoints, and demanded compensations to the victims and their families.