Talisman Gate

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Rotten Fish

Copyright 2005 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC
All Rights Reserved
The New York Sun

August 16, 2005 Tuesday


LENGTH: 1158 words

HEADLINE: Rotten Fish

BYLINE: Nibras Kazimi


Hands down, the best reporting coming out of Iraq is being done by the 26-year-old Baghdad bureau chief of the Knight Ridder newspaper chain, Hannah Allam. Last week, she filed a lengthy follow-up to a story she broke a month ago, the upshot of which was that a sum in excess of $500 million went missing in the space of eight months somewhere within Iraq's Ministry of Defense. That amount accounts for about half of the ministry's budget.

So let's do a bit of math: In the span of about 240 days, some $4 million was spent each day. Half that money went to line the pockets of a web of about 15 Iraqi embezzlers in league with probably another 15 non-Iraqi middlemen. The other half went to equip, clothe, feed, and pay the salaries of 100,000 members of Iraq's newly minted armed forces. Could low Iraqi troop morale be explained by these men going unpaid for several months while armed with guns that keep jamming?

A report conducted by Iraq's Supreme Board of Audit on all of this was delivered to Prime Minister Jafari's office on May 16. But don't expect him to do anything about this just yet; the man is still getting around - after being in office for four months - to hiring the deputy ministers of his cabinet. These deputies will serve only for another four months come election time, but hey, what's the hurry, right?

Meanwhile, the former acquisitions manager for the defense ministry, Ziad Tariq Cattan, has left town. He carries dual Iraqi and Polish citizenship and has a legal-residency permit in Germany. In July, days after he told Ms. Allam that he would be back in Baghdad to answer allegations and clear his name, Mr. Cattan took a flight from Damascus bound for Germany. His two brothers picked him up from the airport and slaughtered sheep in celebration; he had just eluded an Iraqi arrest warrant issued a couple of weeks earlier.

I met Mr. Cattan once a few years back when he was managing a pizza parlor in a suburb of Bonn. I'm no culinary expert, but lunch was awful, which may have had something to do with his business going belly-up. This failed restaurateur, who also moonlighted as a human trafficker of Iraqi refugees, was hired by Paul Bremer's outfit, the Coalition Provisional Authority, in January 2004.

Mr. Cattan found his way up the ranks and nested in the defense ministry, where he was in a position to pilfer money. He picked a man from Fallujah called Nair Mohamed Ahmed Al-Ali, who also goes by the name of Nair Al-Jumaili, to be his financial sidekick. Mr. Al-Ali had recently found his way to Wahhabism and made it no secret in social conversations that he sympathized with the insurgents. Mr. Al-Ali is also under investigation, and his whereabouts are unknown.

Allam further reported that the ranks of the 1,200 American diplomats, spooks, and technical advisers in the U.S. Embassy went "hopping mad" when the audit report first came out. Yes, $500 million vanishing into thin air may be shocking to those who are uninitiated in Iraq's massive web of graft, but what excuse do those American civilians have in feinting disbelief and anger?

Weren't they paying any attention to earlier problems, many of which were front-page news? Remember when Cattan's former boss and ex-defense minister Hazem Al-Shaalan allegedly tried to carry off $300 million in cash from Baghdad Airport back in January? Al-Shaalan was voted into the National Assembly as a candidate on a list heavily backed by those very same American civilians. But nowadays he seems to be spending most of his time in a sumptuous villa he purchased in Amman's posh neighborhood of Deir Ghbar, as well as hanging out in the lobby of that city's Grand Hyatt Hotel. Shaalan's chief aide, Mishal Al-Sarraf, who is also allegedly involved in that scandalous heist, is himself enjoying an early retirement in Beirut, where he seems to be living the good life. There is an ongoing investigation, but Prime Minister Jafari - bless his heart - is too busy giving memorial speeches about renowned Iraqi poets and can't spare the time to peruse the findings.

And there was also that time in January 2004 when Ayad Allawi's brother-in-law and then Minister of the Interior Nori Al-Badran was implicated in the transfer via airplane to Beirut of Iraqi currency worth $12 million.

There was a progressive pattern to fishy transactions: starting with a measly $12 million and exploding into $500 million. Thus, I find it very hard to believe that those American civilians did not know what was up, given this long track record and their own ubiquitous presence in the country. Back in May, Ms. Allam also reported how the entire archive of Iraq's new intelligence service, paid for and operated by the CIA, also went missing to keep it away from the prying eyes of Iraq's newly elected government. If the American Embassy staff can flaunt Iraq's sovereignty so leisurely, then surely their own eyes and ears would have picked up on what's been going on. Their fall-back defense is "It's Iraq's money, not our taxpayers," as if that justifies their failings.

Moreover, in an interview with a leading Iraqi paper last week, the current minister in charge of Iraq's meager electrical output has claimed that he cannot account for billions of dollars spent under his predecessor. The exminister, Ayham Al-Samamei, has re-invented himself as a mediator between the terrorists and the American government. He has been furiously putting out press releases since being out of a job, including one about a recent photo-op with Stephen Hadley, President Bush's national security adviser.

The saddest part is that blatant corruption is still going on in the Iraqi government, and at all levels, for the fish rots from the head, as they say. But given that $500 million going "poof" is the new benchmark for shock and embarrassment, then loose change of hundreds of thousands of dollars being pinched here and there is not going to make front-page news.

Plenty of former and current Iraqi and American officials have a lot of explaining to do. Some of these Iraqis also need to go to jail. But between a good-for-nothing Jafari and an "it wasn't us" embassy staff, not much is likely to get done.

Not all the news is bad: The Washington Post reported that Sunni tribesmen in the restive town of Ramadi have mobilized to protect the minority Shias living in their midst after roving jihadist henchmen had ordered them to leave town. Some have explained this as a move by the Ba'athists to hit the brakes after fearing that they can no longer contain Zarqawi's influence, but most people I spoke to described it as a spontaneous expression of intercommunal goodwill. This is a moment as important for Iraq as the day Saddam's statue fell and the day millions went out to vote. It is also a wholly Iraqi moment, and the Americans cannot take credit for it. Maybe America's next shining moment is the extradition of Mr. Cattan from Germany to answer for charges of corruption.