Iraq is a country where corruption plays a role in everyday life. Politicians hire not only their followers, but also family members into the government. Bribes are the most common way to receive services from the authorities. Public procurement is notoriously manipulated by officials to skim money, and funnel it to their supporters. Theft and graft not only undermines the country’s democracy, but its economy as well as huge amounts of money are siphoned off, usually to foreign bank accounts, instead of used to rebuild the nation. After the 2003 invasion, the United States was hoping to prevent all that from happening in Iraq when it created two new anti-corruption agencies. The lead in this fight was going to be the Integrity Commission. The Americans however, failed to come up with an adequate structure for the agency, didn’t support it, and it was eventually undermined by politicians who did not want a check on their ability to make off with Iraq’s wealth.
The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) came up with the idea of new offices to counter the threat of corruption in Iraq. In January 2004, it created the Integrity Commission with CPA Order 55. It was supposed to be the lead anti-graft agency in the new Iraq. The Commission was to investigate cases, and then turn them over to the Central Criminal Court of Iraq, which would decide whether to prosecute or not. The Americans thought this was a great idea, but didn’t fully back it. The CPA for instance, did not appointed a head of the Commission, Judge Radhi Hamza Radhi, until it was about to end its work in Iraq in June. The Coalition didn’t really fund the office either, which led it to struggle. Eventually, the State Department ended up providing $11 million to train both the Commission staff and the new Inspector Generals. Perhaps because the CPA was busy dealing with other matters such as appointing an interim Iraqi government or writing the Transitional Administration Law, which was to rule Iraq until a new constitution was drafted, it didn’t give the time and money to the Integrity Commission, which it needed in its inception. Then again, because the Coalition was such a chaotic institution the neglect of the Commission could be just another example of how the U.S. acted in an ad hoc manner in the 2003-2004 period.
Either way, the Americans left the Integrity Commission with an unnecessarily bureaucratic set of rules to follow. The Commission had to rely upon the Inspector Generals, which operated within each ministry to gain information about what was going wrong with the government. That was because the Commission had no power to demand files from the authorities. The Inspectors are largely under the control of their ministers and the prime minister, which means they don’t pass along much substantive data. When it does receive something, the Commission has to review it, and then request more information if it thinks it is important. It then turns over its findings to the Criminal Court that has final say on whether something will be done or not. Then the Interior Ministry would have to issue arrest warrants for the suspects. (1) A 2007 U.S. Embassy report noted that the Ministry often refused to do so when it involved corruption cases. Sometimes Interior officials would even check with the people they were supposed to arrest or take bribes to do nothing. Rather than being at the forefront of investigations, this web of red tape largely made the Integrity Commission a reviewer of material, dependent upon others to actually procure information and arrest and prosecute people. That greatly limited its ability to keep its work secret, and follow through with anything important it might find.
There were legal barriers the Integrity Commission faced as well. A major one was Article 136(b) of the Iraqi Penal Code. It allowed ministers to stop any cases from going to court. In June 2004, the CPA suspended the Law, only for interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi to bring it back later that year. From 2005-2008 136(b) was used 210 times. It wasn’t until April 2011 that parliament finally eliminated the article. Then there was the February 2008 Amnesty Law, which was aimed at reconciliation, but included a provision that covered public employees involved in corruption. By November, the Commission complained that 1,721 cases had to be closed as a result of the new legislation. The environment in which the Integrity Commission was working in was not conducive to its work. Both the executive and legislative branches used their power to inhibit the Commission for carrying out any meaningful investigations. That limited it to only low-level cases, where no one in power would be threatened.
Of greater consequence to the staff was the insecurity that reigned in Iraq from 2004-2008. The Integrity Commission became a victim of this violence. From 2004-2007, 31 workers were killed, as well as 12 family members. The first Commission head Judge Radhi became a target as well. Some of this came from elements of the government. The Interior Ministry for example, was considered a rogue element that had death squads running out of it, so it was off limits. The Sadrists controlled the Health Ministry and was using it to carry out extra judicial killings as well. It openly feuded with the Commission over charges of bribery and stealing drugs and equipment. Agency personnel couldn’t go to the Ministry building or the hospitals it controlled out of fear of the Mahdi Army. The Oil Ministry too was considered out of bounds, because the parties that controlled it would also threaten or attack Integrity officials if they pocked around. The intimidation level became so high that the Commission could barely do any of its work during this period, especially with some of the most powerful ministries out of bounds.
The disadvantage this put the Integrity Commission at was apparent early on. In the first eighteen months of its existence it sent 541 cases to the Criminal Court of Iraq, including 42 against ministers, deputy ministers, and director generals. The judiciary however hardly acted on any of these either because they were unwilling or unable. The result was that from 2004-2007, only 241 guilty verdicts were given, a pitiful 8% of those sent for prosecution. The number of convictions has greatly increased since then, but that hides the lack of effectiveness of such cases. In 2008 for example, there were 97 guilty verdicts, followed by 296 in 2009, and 481 in 2010. Hardly any of these involved any official of standing however. As a U.S. official noted to the International Crisis Group, the number of cases successfully going to court has had no impact upon corruption. In turn, the U.S. Embassy claimed that the Commission was a largely passive entity, because it was too dangerous for it to anything substantive. Given the opposition that the agency faced, going after the lower hanging fruit was probably all that it could hope for.
When violence died down, and Iraq became more stable things did not get any better. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Vice President Adel Abdul al-Mahdi both actively went after the independence of the Integrity Commission. In 2007, the premier told U.S. officials that he opposed independent agencies investigating corruption. That led to a spring executive order being issued that no action against a minister could take place without his permission. Judge Radhi claimed that blocked $80 million in cases that were being investigated. Even worse, for a short period of time in 2007, the prime minister had the official link to the Commission on the government’s webpage go to a porn site. Ironically, the next year the premier declared Baghdad was going to focus upon fighting corruption. He showed his commitment to that cause by pardoning 1,023 people who were under investigation at the end of the year. Behind the scenes, Maliki issued secret orders to stop the Commission from sending cases to the Central Criminal Court that involved high-ranking officials. The next year, the premier tried to limit the agency even more by saying that it could not start any investigations on its own, and attempted to get rid of specific Commission personnel. Vice President Mahdi tried similar tactics. He demanded the right to vet all corruption cases. When the Commission refused, it got a call from the head of the Iraqi Supreme Court, Judge Medhat Mahmoud telling it to give into Mahdi’s request. It was nearly impossible for the Integrity Commission to escape such pressure from the prime minister and vice president of the country. This put another huge damper on its ability to do its work properly, again reducing it to something akin to a beat cop who could arrest a common criminal, but never the big fish who committed the real crimes.
The influence Prime Minister Maliki was able to garner over the Integrity Commission allowed him to manipulate their investigations. In May 2011 for instance, the government accused the director of the Trade Bank of Iraq Hussein al-Azri of corruption. The charges however, dated back to 2007. A senior Iraqi official questioned why it took four years for any action to be taken on them, leading him and others to believe that the premier was just using them to gain control of the bank.
The constant outside interference, and lack of any meaningful accomplishments led to a high turnover rate with the heads of the Integrity Commission. Judge Radhi resigned in September 2007. He claimed that there was $4 billion worth of corruption going on at the Defense Ministry, and $2 billion worth in the Interior Ministry. Afterward, there was an attack on his house, which he blamed the Iraqi security forces for. In addition, he said that the government was stopping him from doing his job, and that Maliki was against investigating corruption. That same year, factions in parliament attempted to impeach him. That all led to him stepping down. Radhi’s deputy Mossa Farj was then appointed his replacement. He discovered massive corruption at the Oil Ministry, which he went public with. He was dismissed before he could do anything about it. Then in January 2008, Judge Rahim al-Ogaili was named the new head. He was never confirmed by parliament however, which meant he could be dismissed at any time. The prime minister used that fact to constantly pressure him. Ogaili ended up leaving in September 2011. He, along with the Inspector Generals and Board of Supreme Audit were looking into hundreds of shell companies set up by officials and political parties, which were involved in a massive scam to skim off money from government contracts. Any time a major development deal was signed by Baghdad, it included some of these front companies, so that relatives and followers of politicians could siphon off funds. When the Integrity Commission turned over its findings to the Criminal Court, it refused to act. Ogaili quit as a result. The political differences within parliament then kept it from naming a new Commission head. That allowed the premier to place Izzat Tawfiq in on an interim basis, and in effect, finally gain control of the agency. Since 2007, the prime minister has demanded that the Integrity Commission bend to his will. In 2011, he achieved his goal when he was able to place one of his people at the top of the organization. Now he can intervene on any cases that involve his supporters, and use the Commission against his rivals and enemies.
To top it all off, the Commission has not been immune from the problems it was created to solve. The organization has hired people who were not qualified, were corrupt, and members of political parties. Starting in 2008, as violence receded, the Commission did try to address some of these issues. Judge Ogaili for one, started some internal reforms, and fired some personnel. Still, in 2011, some of the leadership in the commission was accused of embezzling money and taking funds. An inquiry turned up nothing, but then it was revealed that bribes had been given to look the other way. That made the Commission much like the rest of the government. It’s just ironic in this case, since the agency is supposed to be fighting against these illegal activities, but ended up falling victim to them.
The Americans created the Integrity Commission to be at the forefront in the fight against corruption in the new Iraq. The U.S.’s lack of support, and bad planning however, undermined the new institution. When the CPA closed shop in 2004, the Integrity Commission faced an unfriendly legal, political, and security reality. It came out on the short end, and although it continues to do its work, and reports more arrests and convictions each year, it has hardly made an impact upon corruption, which has been institutionalized within the country. Like the other anti-graft agencies today it finds itself emasculated, and under the control of the prime minister.
1. U.S. Embassy, “Review of Anticorruption Efforts in Iraq Working Draft,” 2007
Brinkley, Joel, “Iraq quietly tackles rampant corruption,” San Francisco Chronicle, 1/24/09
Corn, David, “Secret Report: Corruption is ‘Norm’ Within Iraqi Government,” The Nation, 8/30/07
Ibrahim, Haidar, “Lack of Political Consensus Hinders Assigning New Integrity Head,” AK News, 12/16/11
International Crisis Group, “Failing Oversight: Iraq’s Unchecked Government,” 9/26/11
Ramzi, Kholoud, “the integrity commission is accused of corruption,” Niqash, 3/23/11
Reuters, “Iraq Says 300 Officials Charged With Corruption,” 11/18/08
Rubin, Alissa, “Blaming Politics, Iraqi Antigraft Official Vows to Quit,” New York Times, 9/7/07
Schoof, Renee, “Iraqi judge: Corruption undermines Iraq’s future,” McClatchy Newspapers, 10/4/07
Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, Hard Lessons, 1/22/09
- “Quarterly Report and Semiannual Report to the United States Congress,” 1/30/12
- “Quarterly Report to the United States Congress,” 10/30/08
- “Quarterly Report to the United States Congress,” 4/30/09
U.S. Embassy, “Review of Anticorruption Efforts in Iraq Working Draft,” 2007
Visser, Reidar, “Anti-Corruption Measure Sparks Constitutional Confusion in Iraq,” Iraq and Gulf Analysis, 5/10/11