BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi authorities are investigating large-scale fraud at Baghdad municipality where employees have stolen millions of dollars, officials said on Monday.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, facing an election next year in which a major theme may be an epidemic of corruption sweeping Iraq as it emerges from years of sectarian warfare, on Monday ordered an investigation into the fraud scheme.
Baghdad provincial council head Kamel al-Zaidy said on Sunday investigations so far had found that $20 million had been siphoned away by a gang cashing cheques in the names of fake employees at a bank branch inside the city hall.
“Billions of Iraqi dinars belonging to employees of the Baghdad municipality are being cashed each day through fake signatures,” Zaidy told reporters.
“The case is huge. It involves a large network of people operating under the supervision of the mayor’s office.”
Zaidy, who is a member of Maliki’s Dawa party, said the municipality run by mayor Saber al-Issawi, a member of rival Shi’ite political party the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, had arrested some people but had not gone after the ringleaders.
The mayor’s office said it was tackling the fraud and had arrested 13 people.
Corruption has shot to the forefront as one of the gravest ills threatening Iraq’s development as the bloodshed triggered by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion subsides.
The country, which is still rocked regularly by devastating bomb attacks, is trying to attract foreign investors to its massive oilfields and other areas of the economy. But corruption could be a deterrent to global firms which could be held liable in U.S. and European courts if they pay bribes.
Iraqis are increasingly frustrated by what they see as a prevalence of corruption, which they blame for the poor state of basic services such as water, electricity, and sewage system.
Earlier this year, former Trade Minister Abdul Falah al-Sudany was forced to resign in a scandal involving food imports. He denied any wrongdoing and is out on bail.
Transparency International this week placed Iraq fifth from the bottom in its index of perceived public corruption, out of 180 countries.
Editing by Michael Christie