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World News

U.S. says Iraq fails to tackle corrupt high officials

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq has yet to try a single senior official on corruption charges and ministers routinely shield political allies from prosecution, U.S. officials said.

“The issue for Iraq right now is until you have convictions of government officials, it is not going to inhibit or prevent corruption in the future,” an official at the U.S. embassy said on Wednesday, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity.

Embassy officials painted a bleak picture of official misconduct in the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who heads a fragile coalition struggling to heal political divisions and lead Iraq out of more than five years of war.

Curbing corruption will be an important and formidable task for Iraq, which in 2007 scored above only Myanmar and Somalia in an international ranking of corruption perceptions, in efforts to resurrect a weak economy and avoid an upsurge in violence.

Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Iraq has been awash in money and opportunities for corruption -- massive U.S.-funded reconstruction projects, billions of dollars in oil revenues, nascent government institutions with little oversight.

Iraq today has three bodies designed to halt corruption, one of which places 35 inspectors general across state agencies. So far this year, Iraq has charged more than 300 lower-level officials with corruption, and won convictions in 86 cases.

But U.S. officials said no convictions since 2003 included senior officials, even when corruption is an open secret.

HIGH STAKES FOR MALIKI

For Maliki, who has been criticized in the past for lacking the will to pursue corruption cases that will inevitably test political loyalties, the stakes may be high.

“Some persons who are known or widely believed to be corrupt -- they don’t go after them. Is it because to go after them would threaten the survival of the government? I don’t know, but that may be a factor,” a second official said.

Trying corruption is not an easy task even for the most zealous of Iraqi investigators, who have been physically barred from ministries, intimidated by state officials and all too often become victims of violence themselves.

Threats prompted the former head of the Integrity Commission to flee Iraq last year. At least 40 corruption investigators have been killed.

Violence has dropped sharply over the past year, and most ministries are not the sectarian or militia fiefdoms they were.

Still, the U.S. officials said, prosecution of corruption is seriously crippled by government ministers’ routine use of a regulation that allows them to halt investigations at will.

“It allows ministers to say, ‘I can immunize my subordinate official, no matter what he’s done,’” the first official said.

U.S. officials did not know precisely how the regulation, which dates to the Saddam era, had been invoked. But they said ministers used it, or threatened to use it, frequently to halt corruption probes within their agencies, sometimes even more than once with the same person.

U.S. officials see only faint signals that change may be occurring -- such as Maliki’s requirement that ministers clear any use of the controversial rule with him. The Integrity Commission has also asked parliament to repeal the rule.

But persuading parliament to expose politicians, especially allies, to such a risk would be a difficult task.

Editing by Tim Pearce

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