A drop in the bucket

By Claude Salhani

The Iraqi government has accused a former governor of embezzling $10 million, money that had been intended to assist refugees from the war.

In the greater context of things Iraqi, $10 million is a drop in the ocean. Think of all the money that is being thrown around by the powers that are pulling strings, trying to win influence in the country.

The United States, Saudi Arabia and, of course, Iran, among others, have been pouring millions upon millions of dollars into the conflict.

War is good business, for some at least. If it doesn’t kill you, it can make you filthy rich. That is if your conscience doesn’t mind.

The temptation to pocket some of the millions of dollars that typically float around the front lines and secret negotiation rooms of conflict is easy to succumb to. This is especially true in countries where corruption in government is commonplace.

Crooked politicians and the middlemen arranging multimillion-dollar transactions when brokering deals in the weapons and munitions field all require hard cash. Then there are those who can easily skim off the top from funds provided to pay the fighters and cover incidentals. In a war zone, “incidentals” cover much ground.

There are those who profit from the millions of dollars allocated to salaries of fighters. In many countries, as is the case in Iraq, the fighters do not have bank accounts allowing for direct deposits and are paid in cash. Or as may be the case with foreign fighters who enter the country illegally, as thousands of Islamic State supporters did, cash is the only option.

Even when salaries consist of a meagre few hundred dollars, multiply those by several tens of thousands and it adds up to a pretty penny.

As mentioned earlier, $10 million is a drop in the bucket of Iraqi corruption. The problem makes Iraq, normally one of the richest countries in the Arab world, a poor nation.

The population is distrustful of politicians and for a good reason. This distrust undermines the attempts at building a democratic process and creates a large constituency for armed militias instead of civil political parties or political movements.

The armed militias are often turned into an expanded praetorian guard, acting in the interests of a local warlord.

In that context the disappearance of $10 million, which was meant to be spent for the rehabilitation of two hospitals in Mosul, capital of northern Iraq’s Nineveh province, where the Islamic State had its stronghold, is hardly noticed — but it was.

A government spokesman told Agence France-Presse (AFP) that the money was embezzled by its fugitive former governor. A spokesman for the Commission of Integrity told AFP that its investigators uncovered “invoices from developers in Iraqi Kurdistan,” but that no corresponding receipt was found.

Sums have been debited that doesn’t appear in any provincial authorities’ bank accounts or in the Provincial Council funds,” a government spokesman said.

The sacked governor of Nineveh, Nawfel Akoub, is thought to be in hiding, along with several other officials wanted by Baghdad, and has been on the lam since a ferry sank in Mosul in March, killing 150 people.

A commission investigating the disappearance of funds said more than $60 million of public funds had been diverted by officials close to Akoub from Nineveh’s budget of $800 million.

Corruption is endemic across Iraq, which ranks among the world’s worst offenders in Transparency International’s annual “Corruption Perceptions Index.”

It may require several generations before Iraq no longer accepts corruption has a way of life.

Claude Salhani is a regular columnist with The Arab Weekly and a senior fellow at the Institute of World Affairs

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