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Fighting corruption in Iraq

Marketplace Staff Jul 6, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Iraq’s new prime minister has been making the rounds of the neighborhood. Nuri al-Maliki’s been visiting other Arab countries in the region looking for their support. Promising to end the insurgency in Iraq. Stop corruption, too. It’s a toss-up as to which one of those will be more difficult. Al-Maliki has US troops to help with the insurgents. Each of his ministries has its own investigators to help stop corruption. And just like the American soldiers, they’ve got their hands full. The inspector general at the ministry of defense is trying to track down more than a billion dollars that’s gone missing. Ben Gilbert has more:

BEN GILBERT: Here at the police headquarters in Ramadi, the provincial police chief’s station is in bad shape.

CHUCK BUXTON: What you’ll see is all the light fixtures ripped out of the ceiling, a lot of wood ripped out of the walls, the windows busted. And so I’ll take you through the building and show you that all the electrical outlets are ripped out of the walls — anything where any value could be ascertained or just something broken, they did it. They took everything.

That’s Major Chuck Buxton, the head of the police transition team in Ramadi and surrounding Anbar Province. As bad as it is inside the police headquarters, outside it’s even worst.

BUXTON: You can see down through here the numbers of vehicles with smashed windshields and torn up engines. And then we have more around the front, as well. And some of these were brand new six months ago. We figure $15,000 to $20,000 a car, you know, just as a base. And you can see how much American money has just been lost there, that we’re gonna have to replace. All of it trashed.

At least 40 late-model Iraqi police vehicles stand looted and wrecked in the front parking lot. The windshields busted out, engines stripped, and interiors open to the elements. It wasn’t looters or insurgents who caused this damage in 2003. It was the Iraqi army this past fall.

Seventy miles away, at the Ministry of Defense in Baghdad, the job of trying to prevent this type of waste and corruption by the Iraqi Military falls to Faisal Mohammed Bakr Mehdi, the inspector general for the Iraqi Ministry of Defense. Being an inspector general in Iraq brings a lot of problems from colleagues who don’t necessarily want to be inspected.

FAISAL MOHAMMED BAKR MEHDI: Some people, they consider the inspectors as they are spies for outside.

Mehdi has 70 staffers to inspect an Iraqi military that employs 100,000 soldiers alone. He wears a suit and tie, but it’s 115 degrees and the defense ministry is wrapped in a shroud of stifling heat. The electricity only works about three hours a day. The air conditioners rarely come on. Same with the computers. Still, Mehdi says he’s dedicated to weeding out the corruption that has wracked the ministry over the past three years.

MEHDI: Hundreds of millions of dollars has been paid for false companies. There was no such companies. And it has been paid full in advance, the money.

Mehdi is working on 60 cases involving nearly a billion dollars that went missing under Iraq’s first interim minister of defense — Hazim Shalan. Shalan was appointed by the US occupation authority to serve under former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. Shalan and other officials have since left Iraq, and the Iraqi government has issued warrants for their arrest. Inspector General Mehdi says there was no regulation to prevent this type of corruption.

MEHDI: Before, nobody need to be crook. The money on the table and just pick them up and put it in his pocket.

Mehdi says the corruption resulted from the lack of a standard policy for writing up contracts. So, three months ago, Mehdi submitted his own set of guidelines to the defense minister. But he’s still waiting for approval. It goes to show just how hard it is for him to get the minister’s attention.

MEHDI: You know, I work with him six months, four months I did not meet him. That means how much cooperation you can understand.

Despite the setbacks, Mehdi is optimistic. Earlier this month a new defense minister was selected. Mehdi hopes that under this new administration, he can expand his oversight to every level of the armed forces. He wants inspectors with units in the field in places such as Ramadi, and all the way up to the ministry level in Baghdad. Of course, he’d need more resources for this. Right now, out of Mehdi’s 70 staffers, only five are trained to conduct investigations.

In Ramadi, I’m Ben Gilbert for Marketplace.

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