BAGHDAD — The Iraqi Red Crescent, the country's leading humanitarian organization, has been crippled by allegations of embezzlement and mismanagement, and a former Largo urologist is at the center of the controversy.
Said Hakki, the group's ex-president who left his Bay Pines VA Medical Center practice five years ago to return to Iraq, fled Iraq this summer after arrest warrants were issued for him and his deputies. The Iraqi-American was recruited by Bush administration officials to resuscitate Iraq's health care system and later took up the Red Crescent helm. He and his aides deny the allegations and call them politically motivated.
The allegations include what Iraqi officials call the inappropriate expenditure of more than $1-million on Washington lobbying firms in an unsuccessful effort to win U.S. funding.
The Red Crescent, a nonsectarian affiliate of the International Red Cross that delivers food, medicine and other relief, oversees the largest humanitarian operation in the country, with thousands of employees and an annual budget of $60-million funded in large part by the Iraqi government.
The group has ceased nearly all its humanitarian work in recent months after the government froze its assets. The agency, which distributed more than 35,000 emergency food packages in June, handed out just 2,000 in July.
Iraqi officials point to Hakki and other former exiles brought to Iraq by the U.S. government as one reason that key institutions remain inefficient and corrupt.
"We are supposed to be an organization that helps people, and instead we have been infected by a culture of corruption," said Abdul Kareem Aboud al-Humeidi, a critic of Hakki who was elected interim president of the Red Crescent this summer.
In interviews from Beirut, Lebanon, Hakki said his expansion of the organization's size and budget has helped millions of Iraqis. He called the investigations a ploy by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to purge him and other allies of former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari from top jobs in the country.
A former adviser to Saddam Hussein's Health Ministry, Hakki fled the country in 1983 and eventually settled in Florida, where he became a U.S. citizen. He taught at the University of South Florida and became known for his patented work on prosthetic penile implants.
Just before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration asked Hakki to return to Baghdad. At the time, the administration sought to fill positions in Iraq with Republican supporters. Hakki has donated $13,800 to Republican candidates and party organizations since 1988.
Jafari, Iraq's premier from mid 2005 to mid 2006, appointed Hakki to lead the Red Crescent.
But Hakki soon clashed with the head of the society's accounting division, Faiza Fadhil Whayeb, who insisted that Hakki and his deputies put out all contracts for competitive bidding, according to Humeidi and other agency officials. Hakki refused, they said.
Hakki said it was sometimes necessary to avoid time-consuming bidding procedures because of the pressing need and the difficulty of working under wartime conditions.
Another confrontation came over a 2005 government grant for the Red Crescent to build camps for Iraqis making the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. After the society spent the money, Hakki told Whayeb that the grant was a loan that needed to be repaid to the government, and directed her to transfer the money to him, which she did, according to Humeidi and other agency officials.
An Iraqi judge issued an arrest warrant for Hakki in 2005 on corruption charges related to the controversy, though the warrant was later rescinded. Iraq's public integrity commission is still reviewing the matter. Hakki said that he has no recollection of the project.
Under Hakki's leadership, the Red Crescent expanded rapidly, but several humanitarian organizations grew concerned over what they considered the Red Crescent's lack of transparency with funds, and some, including UNICEF, stopped working with the organization.
In 2007, the Iraqi Bureau of Supreme Audit, the government's top auditing agency, said it had identified financial irregularities at the Red Crescent. Abdul Bassit Turki Saeed, the agency's president, said he could not determine what happened to about $50-million the government had sent to the organization. Hakki called the audit part of the government's smear campaign against him and said all the money was spent on sick and needy Iraqis.