As Iraqis rally against corruption, ministries up 'for sale'

As Iraqis rally against corruption, ministries up 'for sale'

BAGHDAD-Agence France-Presse
As Iraqis rally against corruption, ministries up for sale

An Iraqi protester waves the national flag amid clashes with riot police at Baghdad's al-Khilani Square on Feb. 19, 2020 during ongoing anti-government demonstrations. (AFP Photo)

With Iraq rocked by months of protests against corruption and nepotism, the judiciary is investigating allegations ministeries are up for sale as politicians wrangle to form a new government.    

These "sales and purchases", which insiders say have dogged Iraqi politics for years, are again a hot issue as prime minister-designate Mohammed Allawi seeks to build a cabinet acceptable to both protesters and the political class.    

Similar allegations have surrounded other governments formed since Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003 -- but this is the first time the judiciary has questioned Iraqi politicians over the matter.    

Political commentator Ibrahim al-Soumeidihi, who is close to the negotiations, claimed on Twitter that one group had offered him $30 million in return for a ministerial portfolio.    

He was followed by Kazem al-Sayadi, a lawmaker with the State of Law Alliance of former premier Nouri al- Maliki -- bitterly opposed to Allawi.    

"The oil ministry is selling for 10 billion dinars (around 8.4 million dollars), who wants to buy?" Sayadi tweeted.     

With unprecedented diligence, the judiciary swiftly launched investigations with al-Soumeidihi and urged authorities to lift Sayadi's parliamentary immunity so he too can be questioned.    

Sayadi has since deleted his Tweet.     

Since October, the country of 40 million has been rocked by unprecedented protests that have seen nearly 550 Iraqis killed and 30,000 injured, the vast majority protesters.  

The government of former prime minister Adel Abdel Mahdi resigned late last year, bowing to pressure from the street and the country's highest Shiite authority.    

But despite almost five months of rallies, political leaders continue to rely on old techniques to remain in power, said Hisham al-Hashemi, an Iraqi expert.    

Political "brokers" include parliamentarians and politicians paid by candidates to lobby on their behalf, he said.    

Heads of parliamentary blocs also sell ministerial posts to affiliated candidates, he added.    

Party heads "are demanding either a one-off payment or four instalments paid each year for the duration of the ministerial mandate," the expert told AFP.    

Official graft, in a country ranked 16th from bottom on monitor Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index, has complicated the already-difficult task of forming a new government.    

Parties that "bought" a ministry at the end of 2018 expecting to lead it for four years are now reluctant to hand it over after less than 18 months.     

"The leader of our party has warned the prime minister-designate that we already have vested interests in certain ministries and we cannot just abandon them," said one politician on condition of anonymity.    

"So someone close to us must be appointed to these ministries," he added.    

This reluctance to relinquish posts, according to a senior government official, could make a dead letter of Allawi's pledge to form a government of independents.    

"The parties could initially accept independent candidates," the politician told AFP.    

"But then they will approach the minister in question and say that his ministry is a part of their share."    

Ministerial posts are not the only political prizes.    

Other senior positions are also coveted for influence over state contracts.     

A member of parliament in December urged the judiciary to question the minister of industry over allegations he made deals with an affiliated firm.    

Ironically, the lawmaker who made the allegations is currently serving a six-year prison sentence for accepting a bribe to cancel a hearing over the case.    

An official from a government anti-corruption commission said most established parties have so-called economic committees "responsible for securing commercial contracts for companies owned or linked to them."    

The day he was appointed, Allawi pledged to dissolve these entities.    

But the anti-graft official said the state is rife with such cases.     

"Ministers from major parties reserve (state) contracts for companies close to them. They are usually empty shells that never implement projects," he said.    

Iraq is one of the most oil-rich countries in the world but has suffered chronic water and power shortages for decades and unemployment is high.    

Despite signing contracts, the government has not built any major highways, hospitals, universities or bridges in years.     

According to parliament figures, some $450 billion has evaporated from state coffers because of corruption, fake contracts and embezzlement since 2003.