- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 31, 2009

BAGHDAD | Iraq’s former trade minister was arrested Saturday in a burgeoning corruption scandal after his plane was ordered back to Baghdad while en route to the United Arab Emirates, officials said.

The fight against corruption is emerging as a major issue in Iraq, with many Iraqis convinced that graft and government mismanagement are nearly as great a threat to the country as armed insurgency.

Sensing public discontent, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government has seized on the issue, promising stern action against wrongdoers after having been criticized for years for inaction against corruption.

Abdel Falah al-Sudani, who resigned this month after allegations of massive corruption in the Trade Ministry, was taken into custody after his commercial flight returned to Baghdad International Airport.

Officials rushed an arrest warrant to the airport as soon as they learned that Mr. al-Sudani had boarded a plane for Dubai in the UAE. The warrant was served as soon as the plane returned, according to Rahim al-Ogaili, chairman of the government’s Commission on Public Integrity.

Mr. al-Sudani, a member of Mr. al-Maliki’s Dawa party, became the highest profile figure arrested so far in an anti-corruption drive launched this year.

On Wednesday, Mr. al-Ogaili told parliament that 997 arrest warrants have been issued this year against officials suspected of corruption, including 51 in senior posts.

Only about a third of the warrants have been served because many of those sought have fled the country.

In recent weeks, however, the spotlight has fallen on the Trade Ministry because of its role in managing a massive $5 billion program to provide monthly food rations for Iraqis.

The program has been in effect since Iraq was under international sanctions following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

Mr. al-Sudani is accused of mismanaging the ministry by importing expired foods, engaging in illegal contracts and employing relatives, Mr. al-Ogaili said.

Mr. al-Sudani’s two brothers, who worked for the Trade Ministry’s security force, are accused of skimming millions of dollars in kickbacks on food imports. One of them is in custody after attempting to flee the country while the other is still at large.

The case became a national scandal after a video was posted on YouTube purportedly showing Mr. al-Sudani’s two brothers drinking and partying with scantily-clad women. Mr. al-Sudani has acknowledged corruption within the ministry but has denied any role.

U.S. officials have long complained that corruption was siphoning billions of dollars away from Iraq’s struggling economy.

Former Electricity Minister Ayham al-Samarraie was jailed in a corruption investigation but escaped in December 2006 and fled to the United States, where he also holds citizenship.

Former Defense Minister Hazem al-Shaalan left Iraq in 2005 and refused to return to face charges of $1 billion in fraud in connection with weapons sales under the government of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.

In October 2007, the former head of the public integrity commission, Radhi al-Radhi, told a U.S. House panel that corruption had cost Iraq some $18 billion over the past three years and that oil revenues were helping to finance Shi’ite militias.

Mr. al-Radhi also accused the al-Maliki government of blocking investigations and protecting corrupt officials because of political pressure. Mr. al-Radhi was later granted asylum in the United States.

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