Thursday, April 05, 2007

$8 billion vanished from Iraq in 3 years, official says

BAGHDAD -- Iraq's top corruption fighter said Wednesday that $8 billion in government money was wasted or stolen over the past three years and claimed he was threatened with death after opening an investigation into scores of Oil Ministry employees.

In the chaos and lawlessness of Iraq, such threats are not taken lightly. Radi al-Radhi, who runs the Public Integrity Commission, leads one of the more dangerous missions in the country. He said in an interview that 20 members of the organization have been murdered since it began its work.

In perhaps the most publicized recent case, an estimated $2 billion disappeared from funds to rebuild the electricity infrastructure.

Former Electricity Minister Ayham al-Samaraie, who holds both U.S. and Iraqi citizenship, was convicted in that case and sentenced to two years in prison. He escaped from an Iraqi-run jail in the Green Zone on Dec. 17 and turned up in Chicago on Jan. 15. Al-Samaraie has said the Americans helped him escape.

Al-Radhi said the commission has investigated about 2,600 corruption cases since it was established in March 2004, a few months before the United States returned sovereignty to Iraq. He estimated $8 billion has vanished or been misappropriated.

Corruption in the country, while traditionally rampant, is encouraged by constitutional clause 136 B, al-Radhi said. It gives Cabinet ministers the power to block his investigations.

So far, he said, ministers have blocked investigations into the theft or misspending of an estimated additional $55 million in public funds.

Two years ago he asked the Constitutional Court to strike the clause, but the panel has never issued a ruling.

On Wednesday, he took the matter to Parliament Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, who promised to back his efforts before the court, al-Radhi said.

The Iraq war has proven a temptation for many in the United States as well.

A quarterly audit released Jan. 31 by Stuart Bowen Jr., the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, found the $300 billion U.S. war and reconstruction effort continues to be plagued with waste and corruption.

According to Bowen's report, the State Department paid $43.8 million to contractor DynCorp International for a residential camp for police-training personnel outside of Baghdad's Adnan Palace grounds. The camp has been empty for months. About $4.2 million of the money was improperly spent on 20 VIP trailers and an Olympic-size pool, all ordered by the Iraqi Ministry of Interior but never authorized by the U.S.

U.S. officials spent an additional $36.4 million for weapons such as armored vehicles, body armor and communications equipment that cannot be accounted for. DynCorp also may have prematurely billed $18 million in other potentially unjustified costs, the report said.

Also Wednesday, heavily armed gunmen abducted 22 Shiite shepherds who were tending thousands of sheep and had wandered into a dangerous Sunni area west of Baghdad, while six power-plant workers were gunned down in northern Iraq.

The attacks reflected the spread of sectarian violence outside Baghdad as violence declines in the capital, where a U.S.-Iraqi security crackdown is in its eighth week.

The shepherds had traveled from the Shiite holy city of Karbala to a greener stretch of land in the vast area around Amariyah, about 25 miles west of Baghdad in the Sunni-dominated Anbar province, a Karbala police spokesman said.

In all, at least 34 people were killed or found dead in Iraq Wednesday, including six Sunni Arab men killed in an ambush near the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk.

The gunmen drove by in two cars and strafed a minibus in Manazlah as it was taking the men to work at a power station. Two of the dead were engineers.

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