Page last updated at 13:45 GMT, Monday, 18 May 2009 14:45 UK

'Billions lost' to corruption in Iraq

By Natalia Antelava
BBC News, Baghdad

Iraqi officers are showered with foam as they march during their graduation from Kalachwalan military college in Sulaimaniyah
Officials say some families have paid bribes to get their sons into the army

As the sun disappears behind the dusty horizon and the air begins to cool, a group of men gather near a butcher's shop in the Karada neighbourhood of Baghdad.

They sip sweet tea, play dominoes and debate which Iraqi ministry is the most corrupt.

"For sure it's the trade ministry," one says.

"No, it's the interior ministry, because the police are the worst of all," another argues.

The list of suggestions grows longer, till one of them waves all arguments off: "They are all equally corrupt."

The verdict is in line with a recent report by Iraq's anti-corruption committee, leaked to the Western media, which reveals the magnitude of the problem facing the Iraqi government.

The report, which is a result of the committee's investigation into some 12,000 complaints of government corruption, says that that among the worst offenders are - in no particular order - the ministries of defence, interior, finance, education and health.

One of the cases, says a defence ministry official, involves tens of thousands of dollars made by illegally charging young recruits up to US $500 each to join the army.

The report does not even scratch the surface of what goes on. Millions, billions of dollars are being stolen
Alia Nusaif
Iraqi MP

"The report does not even scratch the surface of what goes on. Millions, billions of dollars are being stolen," says Alia Nusaif, an Iraqi MP and member of the parliamentary anti-corruption committee.

After she publicised evidence of corruption in the trade and defence ministries, Ms Nusaif says that both filed law suits against her. Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri Maliki has recently called on his government to declare a war on corruption. But Ms Nusaif says for her it has been a lonely battle.

"He made the same promises last year. The problem is that senior officials are never punished in Iraq," she said.

Trade not aid

In the bustling Shorja market in Baghdad, corruption is on display as some stalls sell government food rations that many Iraqis depend on.

The ministry of trade is accused of making millions by selling the food aid to traders instead of giving it away.

In late April the anti-corruption committee sent a police unit to deliver arrest warrants for senior trade ministry officials, including the minister's two brothers.

Under Saddam things were bad, but now they are worse... what frightens me most is the effect this will have on the security situation
Former dissident

But the police were greeted by shots fired into the air by the ministry's own guards. During the brief shoot out that followed, the officials, including the brothers, escaped through a back gate.

One of the brothers has since been caught, but the minister denies allegations of wrong-doing.

"Is this what you call democracy? Government officials are getting rich off the back of our misery," one buyer in Shorja market said.

"This would never have happened under Saddam," added another. "We may have had our problems, but we were not being robbed."

Corruption and security

Even some of Saddam's former opponents are making similar comparisons.

"Under Saddam things were bad, but now they are worse," said a former political exile, who did not want to give his name. After 30 years living in the UK, he returned only recently, full of hope and optimism for the future of Iraq.

"I was astonished by the levels of corruption. And what frightens me most is the effect this will have on the security situation."

While the streets of Baghdad are safer than before, violence is still part of daily life. Many Baghdad residents worry that once the Americans leave the city at the end of June, their safety will be in the hands of the police and army that are accused of being seriously corrupt.

"Millions of dollars are being stolen, and some of this money is going to terrorist groups. The government cannot win the war against the insurgency if it does not fight corruption first. And the war against corruption is much harder to win," said the former dissident.

Some believe the government has already lost this war. According to the anti-corruption group Transparency International, Iraq is one of the most corrupt places in the world, third only to Burma and Somalia.

The problem is that fighting corruption in Iraq is not only difficult, it's also highly dangerous. Last week one of the members of the committee that put together this anti-corruption report was shot dead in the streets of Baghdad.

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