Maliki government dismissing oversight officials

By James Glanz and Riyadh Mohammed

BAGHDAD: The government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki is systematically dismissing the oversight officials installed to fight corruption in Iraqi ministries by order of the American occupation administration, which had hoped to bring Western standards of accountability to the opaque and graft-ridden bureaucracy here.

The dismissals of the oversight officials, known as inspectors general, which were confirmed by senior Iraqi and U.S. government officials on Sunday and Monday, come as estimates of official Iraqi corruption soar, with one former Iraqi chief investigator recently testifying before Congress that $13 billion in U.S. taxpayer money had been lost to fraud, embezzlement, theft and waste in the reconstruction program by Iraqi government officials.

Word of the moves, which has not been publicly announced by Maliki’s government, has begun to circulate through the layers of that bureaucracy as the Iraqi Parliament prepares to vote on a security agreement that sets the terms for continued American presence in Iraq beyond Dec. 31, but that also amounts to a framework for a steady reduction of that presence. The reduction will diminish the ability of U.S. officials to provide independent oversight of Iraqi institutions.

How many of the 30 Iraqi ministries have already received orders to dismiss their inspectors general – each cabinet-level office has one inspector general, supported by varying budgets and staffing – is a matter of disagreement among Iraqi governmental officials, but estimates range as high as 17. Several senior Iraqi and U.S. officials agreed that from 7 to 9 inspectors general already had been fired or forced into retirement. In another case, the post at the Ministry of Higher Education became vacant when the inspector general died.

Senior Iraqi officials and a number of the dismissed officials, many of whom asked not to be quoted by name for fear of further reprisals by the government, said the actions had already been taken in the ministries of Water Resources, Culture, Youth and Sport, Trade, as well as the cabinet-level Central Bank of Iraq and two religious ministries, the Sunni and Christian Endowments.

A senior Iraqi official said that the list also included the critical ministries of Electricity and Foreign Affairs, an assertion that could not be immediately confirmed through the ministries’ public affairs offices.

Whatever the precise tally, the steps are provoking accusations that Maliki, who has never been an advocate of having his government’s inner workings scrutinized, will either leave the posts vacant or stack them with supporters of his Dawa party. The secrecy surrounding the moves has only magnified suspicions that the government aims to cripple the oversight mechanisms put in place after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

“The government put a publicity blackout on it so they can do anything they like,” said Sabah al-Saeidi, a Shiite lawmaker with the Fadhila party who heads the Integrity Committee in the Iraqi Parliament.

When Parliament recently proposed a law formalizing the professional requirements that must be met by a candidate for inspector general, Saeidi said, Maliki’s cabinet strongly opposed it.

“They want it to become a political appointment,” Saeidi said. “They are trying to restrict anti-corruption efforts all over the country.”

At least two of the officials who were forced out are Christian women, Hana Shakuri of the Ministry of Culture and Samia Youssef Sha’ia of the Christian Endowment. But most are simply senior Sunni and Shiite technocrats who have been at their posts for years and in several cases were appointed in 2004 by Paul Bremer, the top administrator for the Coalition Provisional Authority.

Hassan al-Safi, who was forced out of his position in the Ministry of Youth and Sport, said that he has degrees in law, economics and auditing and was involved in the earliest anti-corruption efforts in Iraq after the invasion. “If I am not competent, prove it,” said Safi, who said that he had already filed a lawsuit to regain his position.

Three senior advisors to Maliki declined to comment substantively when contacted about the dismissals. “Definitely I know about it, all the details,” said Yasseen Majid, a press adviser to the prime minister. “But you know all the story, so why are you asking me? It’s not my specialty, it’s an administrative issue.”

But Dr. Adel Muhsin, Maliki’s coordinator of anti-corruption organizations and himself inspector general at the Health Ministry, said any allegation of political influence was false.

“This is absolutely completely nonsense,” Muhsin said. The cabinet committee that recommended the changes, he said, “are mainly professional people, not political people. Therefore the selections, it is 100 percent based on professionalism.”

Tariq Majer and Mohammed Hussein contributed reporting.