World News

Iraq chases many for corruption, catches few

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq issued hundreds of arrest warrants for officials suspected of corruption last year, but only a fraction were convicted, a government watchdog said in a new report.

Some suspects fled while others were protected by powerful officials or by an amnesty law meant to foster reconciliation between Iraq’s feuding Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims, Iraq’s Integrity Commission said in its most recent report, released this week but compiling data from 2008.

Corruption is a major problem in Iraq, which watchdog group Transparency International placed fifth from the bottom in its 2009 ranking of perceptions about public corruption.

“Corruption spread throughout Iraq in past decades, but the totalitarianism of the last regime hid this, and stopped its prevention. Since 2003, Iraq has dealt realistically with corruption,” the commission said, referring to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq before his ousting in the 2003 U.S. invasion.

Some 630 arrest warrants were issued against Iraqi officials suspected of corruption last year, mostly employees of the Interior Ministry, but only 97 people were convicted, the commission said.

It said 135 cases of suspected corruption, involving 211 people coming mostly from Iraq’s Oil Ministry, had been closed down by senior officials.

Another 1,552 cases were abandoned because the suspects were covered under the amnesty law, which was not enacted to deal with corruption but to encourage reconciliation by pardoning former militants for non-violent crimes.

Rooting out practices such as bribery, embezzlement and the sale of job opportunities has become a top election issue in Iraq ahead of March 7 national polls.

On Sunday, an Iraqi court jailed a former deputy minister of transport for eight years after anti-corruption forces caught him taking a bribe.

Reporting by Suadad al-Salhy, writing by Mohammed Abbas: Editing by Richard Williams