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Iraq’s odd anti-graft drive

Iraq’s odd anti-graft drive

The war against corruption in Iraq is being waged by an unexpected warrior, writes Salah Nasrawi

As Iraq’s war against the Islamic State (IS) group remains under the international spotlight, an anti-graft war in Baghdad has gone largely unnoticed. But while the war against IS could reshape Iraq’s future, the war against corruption seems to be the latest twist in the spat between Iraq’s competing politicians and rival groups.

For months, a Facebook account profiling Ahmed Chalabi, one of Iraq’s most controversial politicians and a high-level Shia official, has been trying to harness popular anger against corruption in the Shia-led government of Prime Minister Haider Al-Abbadi by releasing horrendous accounts of graft cases online.

Allegations of political corruption in Iraq have made their way onto the social networks before, but the new revelations are particularly significant because they are coming from Chalabi, who also serves as the head of the country’s Parliamentary Finance Committee.

Efforts made to reach Chalabi were unsuccessful, and messages copied to a second Facebook profile using Chalabi’s name to confirm the two pages’ authenticity went unanswered. However, an in-depth search has showed that although Chalabi has dismissed one posting in a statement, he has not asked to remove the Facebook account, which also carries the subtitle “community” with his name.

For many Iraq watchers the ambiguity behind the two Facebook pages will be deliberate in order to make the embarrassment go away. To them, the accounts and documents that detail the corruption cases can hardly be disputed and indicate reliable sourcing.

Few Iraqi officials named in the corruption episodes on Chalabi’s Facebook page sought to respond to the allegations or refute their authenticity, they note.

Why Chalabi, in the light of the watchers’ theory that the Facebook account is associated with him would want to wash the Shia-led government’s dirty linen in public remains unclear. But his anti-corruption drive has raised both doubts and speculation. While few Iraqis believe their political leaders are capable or willing to tackle the endemic graft problem in the country, many perceive Chalabi’s campaign as underlining a deep rift within the ruling Shia alliance.

Chalabi’s background sheds light on the aim behind his surprising anti-graft campaign. This former banker turned politician was a prominent figure in the Iraqi opposition that sought to oust former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein following the Gulf War in 1991.

Chalabi’s falsified reports about Baghdad’s weapons of mass destruction circulated by the mainstream US media were used as a pretext by the Bush administration to invade Iraq in 2003 and topple Saddam.

Chalabi, who became the darling of the Bush administration, was favoured by the Pentagon to succeed the former Iraqi dictator before he was found to be lacking public support inside Iraq. He was sidelined after he failed to receive a parliamentary seat in the first post-Saddam elections in 2005.

But the most striking aspect of his political career remains his involvement in a bank scam in Jordan, a scandal which is believed to have undermined his chances to run the country after Saddam. In 1992 a court in Jordan sentenced Chalabi to 22 years in prison in absentia and ordered the repayment of $30 million of the bank’s money it said he had embezzled.

Chalabi has always maintained the charges against him were politically motivated. But reports compiled by investigators for the international media have described how millions of dollars of depositors’ money was transferred to other parts of the Chalabi family empire in Switzerland, Lebanon and London and not repaid.

This seems like a dubious career for an anti-corruption campaigner and makes sceptics doubt his motivation. The disclosure also offers a rare insight into Iraq’s secret world of political corruption.

Chalabi, or those who run the Facebook page in his name, began posting tales of the horribly corrupt Iraqi government a few months ago. To ramp up public expectations he has been using “For a Better Iraq” as a slogan for his campaign.

Chalabi does not shy away from admitting that the US-led invasion, which he backed and pressed for more than 12 years ago, has been the main culprit in the massive corruption that has plagued Iraq since then.

For example, he cites two ministers appointed by the US-installed Coalition Provisional Authority who spirited away millions of dollars in graft before disappearing. Former minister of electricity Ayham Al-Samaraie was even helped out of a Baghdad jail by American security men who flew him out of Iraq.

“That is how it all started,” Chalabi said on his Facebook timeline. He said that the incident had set a precedent for the “smuggling” of prison inmates, even terrorists, to become routine in post-Saddam Iraq.

“This is how the blood of the Iraqis has become so cheap,” he wrote.

According to Chalabi’s narrative, corruption went viral throughout the two terms of former prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s rule in 2006-2014. After taking over from Al-Maliki, Al-Abbadi has not only failed to fulfill election promises to curb corruption but has also let the epidemic phenomena continue and grow.

One of the main reasons for government corruption to continue, in Chalabi’s view, is because Al-Abbadi still “relies on the same ignorant advisers and corrupt bureaucrats” as before. In a post this week, Chalabi wrote that one of Al-Abbadi’s advisers was a former butcher who had not obtained an education certificate.

“We will not stay silent, when we see you leaving the country in ruins,” Chalabi wrote. “You will lose local and international support, and you will not be able to continue your four-year term in office,” he warned Al-Abbadi.

A recurrent theme in Chalabi’s anti-graft postings is Iraq’s Independent Elections Commission. He cites several cases of corruption by commissioners, including profiteering and taking advantage of their posts to appoint relatives.

One commissioner, Chalabi wrote, had hired his brother who had presented a forged certificate. Another member, he wrote, was using a villa confiscated from a Saddam regime senior official as a residence without paying rent. A third, he said, received 12 million dinars monthly salary in addition to 20 million dinars for security while he spent most of his time abroad.

Another target of the Chalabi campaign is the Iraqi Central Bank (ICB). He has made scathing criticisms of the ICB governor, Ali Al-Allak, who he has blamed for the recent sharp depreciation of the local currency.

According to Chalabi, Al-Allak has no previous experience in banking or finance and was living on welfare in Canada before he was made Al-Maliki’s chief of staff. “He did not even work as an accountant in a grocery store,” Chalabi wrote.

Chalabi ranted in one posting at the government department responsible for displaced Iraqis. While millions of Iraqis have been seeking refuge from violence in other towns or live in dusty tent cities facing the summer heat and shortages of water and electricity, millions of dollars in government and foreign aid have disappeared.

Chalabi’s list of corruption is long and includes allegations of bribery to release imprisoned terrorists, money-laundering and racketeering by officials and journalists.

The response to Chalabi’s Facebook tirades have not been entirely positive. They have even sparked a backlash on the social network, with many users pointing out that Chalabi has failed to carry out his duties as an MP and head of the Parliamentary Finance Commission to take legal and constitutional action to pursue corrupt officials.

“Be brave and unveil all the corruption cases and take offenders to court,” wrote one user. “This is good, but you are head of the Finance Committee, so why don’t you question them in parliament,” responded another.

“One seat and one voice wield no influence inside the parliament,” came the answer to the comments on the timeline.

Instead of stoking up publicity, exposing corruption scandals in Iraqi on social media has proved to be more of a political blood sport than a call for a reckoning. Corruption has become deeply entrenched in the bureaucratic and political system of the country, and few Iraqis believe their political leaders are capable or willing to tackle the endemic graft problem.

Most of Iraq’s political class are believed to be involved in one type of corruption of another, manipulating the country’s rich resources in order to create rents they can use to secure control of the government.

Corruption in Iraq is not only widespread and endemic, but also systematic and institutionalised. It includes bribery, embezzlement, money-trafficking and laundering, extortion, patronage, cronyism, fraud, legal plunder, nepotism and plutocracy.

In 2014, the international NGO Transparency International said Iraq was the fifth most corrupt country in the world out of the 175 countries surveyed.

This article appeared first in Al- Ahram Weekly on June 18, 2015