- The Washington Times - Friday, August 13, 2004

BAGHDAD — Siham Kadhim leaves her gold jewelry at home when she goes to a government office these days. She doesn’t want to tempt the clerks looking for more than just an application fee to process her paperwork.

“I am afraid they will think I am rich and hike up the bribe,” the mother of three said while drinking coffee with friends on a recent afternoon.

As Iraq works to take its first faltering steps toward democracy and transparency, some say its bureaucracy has become even more riddled with corruption, dishonesty and favoritism than it was under the previous regime.

Under Saddam, fear of the government and its many agents — who were planted in every government department — kept some of the corruption in check. The fledgling interim government does not inspire that same fear.

“It’s been one month now that I’ve been going back and forth to that office,” said Umm Ali, 45, talking about her hours in line trying to get a passport.

Like many Iraqis who rushed to obtain travel documents after years of restrictions under Saddam, Umm Ali was surprised to discover that the weeks-old system already was mired in corruption. Shady operators offered to speed her application through the line for $200 — a process that should cost her less than $1.

“While I wait in line, these fixers come up to me and say: ‘If you want your papers done, just show us the dough,’” she said. A devout Shi’ite, Umm Ali — who asked that her nickname be used — wants to travel to neighboring Syria to visit a holy shrine with her husband and daughter.

She said she balked at the fee. “Where do I get $600 from?”

It’s not only the passport authority, Umm Ali’s friends chime in, ticking off a list of places where they had similar experiences — the electricity company, telecommunications offices, real estate branches, the tax service and banks.

George Sada, a spokesman for Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, acknowledged that there was a problem.

“Yes, there are violations, and it is among our top priorities to handle that,” he said, pointing out that the government had been in power only five weeks and that its top task was to contain the 15-month-old insurgency.

Mr. Sada hoped a new anti-corruption commission would help eradicate the problem.

The commission investigates complaints dating from the previous regime. But not many people know about it, including Umm Ali and her friends.

“What are they going to do anyway?” asked Amira Ali. “Saddam has sown evil and corruption, and now it’s harvest time.”

Mrs. Ali has her own tale. Her neighborhood was forced to pay nearly $700 to a phone-line repairman before he would even start working. When Mrs. Ali went to pay council fees for the building she owns, the tax clerk leaned back in her chair and opened a desk drawer — a well-known sign across the Middle East for requesting a bribe. Mrs. Ali paid the clerk $24.

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