A Bold Escape
Bill Long 12/19/06
A Tale of Corruption and US Complicity in Iraq
All the facts are not "in" to date on the news story that flitted across our consciousness today--that former Iraqi Electricity Minister, Ayham al-Samaraie, detained in a supposedly "secure" prison in the International (Green) Zone in Bagdad, was sprung lose from confinement on Sunday by armed guards, believed to be employed by a US private security firm. As with many stories that come out of that troubled land, I felt that this one would disappear into a forgotten abyss unless "flagged" and commented upon. The purpose of this essay is to "freeze" the action on this particular event in the Iraq War, and to use it as an illustration of two things: (1) why American credibility is at a nadir in that country; and (2) how well-nigh impossible the task of reconstruction remains.
Telling the Story
The story that came across the wires today had this summary:
"Former Electricity Minister Ayham al-Samaraie broke out of a Baghdad detention facility Sunday with the help of a group of private security experts, said Faris Kareem, deputy head of Iraq’s Public Integrity Commission, an anti-corruption panel. It was al-Samaraie’s second escape since he was convicted in October. Kareem said the security agents were “foreign,” but he had no further details."
Other articles I read said that the people that freed him, about 10 heavily armed men in four vehicles, had been his hired bodyguards for several months. But why was he detained? What is the "Public Integrity Commission"? And, perhaps underlying everything, is anyone really in charge in Iraq?
The Public Integrity Commission
During the early months of American occupation of Iraq (late 2003), the US thought it would be good for the transitional government to set up a Commission for Public Integrity, with legal "teeth," in order to make sure that no one in post-War Iraq was "above" the law. The Commission was created by "Order 55" in January 2004. Since "effective government depends on the confidence poeple have in their leaders, and that corruption undermines confidence...," the Commission was given a wide mandate to root out this corruption. It also has an audit function within each government Ministry. Well, to date it has only convicted one person of corruption, and that person is none other than Ayham al-Samaraie. Samaraie holds dual Iraqi-American citizenship, and was the first Electricity Minister named by the Iraqi Interim Government late in 2003. I suppose there probably were fewer more visible or important positions in the new Government, and fewer were more susceptible to corruption. After all, the control of the country's electricity would mean that hundreds of millions of dollars of contracts had to be let, both with neighboring countries as well as firms within Iraq that would help restore the electricity infrastructure. Recent reports show that as of Dec. 2006, Baghdad remains an area without regular electricity--insurgents topple towers, kill those sent out to repair broken lines, etc.
Well, Ayham al-Samaraie was charged with funneling hundreds of millions of dollars of contracts to himself and his friends, and was convicted of this offense in Oct. 2006. Though one source I read said that his conviction had been overturned on appeal, he still was being held pending trial on a dozen other corruption charges. His case was, as mentioned above, the first one pursued by the Commission on Public Integrity. One would think that with a case of this magnitude and its being the first CPI case, that they would have a "slam-dunk" case against al-Samaraie.
The Significance of the Escape
The fact that while in prison al-Samaraie could still exercise enough control to overpower the resources of the state confining him, and the possibility that those overpowering the dulty constituted Iraq authority were Americans, means that, at the very least, two hugely problematic messages are being communicated: (1) that Iraq's government is so weak that it can't even provide the modicum of control over a high-visibility prisoner; and (2) that the US-based private security forces in Iraq may have ultimate loyalty to whoever has the most money at any one time, and not to the support of fledgling Iraqi democratic institutions. One of the reports said that the guards didn't report al-Samaraie's escape until 12 hours after it occurred--enough time for him to leave the country. So, was everyone on the take here? The private security guards were, because their loyality is to their clients. The Iraqi prison guards may also have been "paid off" to keep quiet.
And, who is the big loser in all of this? Well, principally the United States and the people of Iraq. It makes us look as if we have control over little or nothing in Iraq. It begs for some kind of strategy explanation from our President who, after announcing he was going to clarify that strategy in December, now will be waiting until January to make his announcement. It means that at the time of the year when people all over the world are celebrating the birth of the Prince of Peace, that we Americans are not clear at all on what that word means in a country which has slipped further and further into violence under our watch. Thus, the al-Samaraie escape is another sign of our impotence in Iraq. Would that there would be some "countersigns" in the near future.