Iraq's ability to grow into a functional state depends in large part on the central government rebuilding the schools, water plants, power stations and other essentials of everyday life. But the New York Times recently reported that the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is systematically firing inspectors who have exposed fraud, waste and abuse in the multibillion dollar reconstruction effort.
Iraq faces critical tests in the coming year as it accepts more responsibility for self-governing and works to build on the recent security gains. This is not the time to sour the West's appetite for assistance or to signal to the nation's fledgling bureaucracies that the central government will tolerate a culture of corruption. But according to the New York Times, the inspectors general at about one-third of Iraq's 30 Cabinet-level ministries have been dismissed or forced into retirement. Other reports say more than half the inspectors have been fired.
American taxpayers have spent about $48-billion on Iraq's reconstruction since 2003, and they deserve — at the least — an honest accounting of where that money went. But officials said Maliki's government has forced out experienced watchdogs and worked to replace them with political appointees. A former U.S. Embassy official said there had been continuing political interference in anticorruption investigations. Critics said the Maliki government removed the inspectors as part of a broader crackdown on openness and transparency.
There is never a good time for any government to weaken the levers of accountability. But the firings come as complaints about corruption in Iraq skyrocket. The former chief investigator for Iraq's Commission on Public Integrity (whose boss was forced out and fled the country) told a Democratic congressional panel in September that an estimated $13-billion to $22-billion meant for reconstruction was wasted through fraud. In his quarterly report to Congress in October, the U.S. special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction reported that corruption, which has a long history in Iraq, amounted to a "second insurgency." Top Iraqi officials routinely solicit bribes and create "ghost projects" while ministries deny U.S. advisers access to their financial records.
Iraq's auditing agencies need more autonomy and authority to confront this colossal waste. While Washington has taken steps to better control the spending of U.S. aid, the Obama administration will need to insist that Maliki open up the oversight process. The United States and other donor nations have their own domestic needs, and taxpayers will not support a continuation of foreign aid with so much money flowing out the back door. Iraq's central government also is approaching a day of political reckoning. It needs to show it can deliver the essentials, run the government professionally and be looked at as credible on the international stage. That requires a new attitude about corruption.