November 17 update: Transparency International today released its 2009 version of the Corruption Perceptions Index. Iraq moved up slightly in the rankings, from 178 to 176 out of 180. The other country where tens of thousands of U.S. combat troops are deployed, Afghanistan, was at 179. The United States ranked 19th.
TAJI AIR BASE, Iraq--Iraqi Col. Waleed Khadem Aboub had a typically local solution to the rampant problem of corruption in his country. "Every month, if they execute somebody in every (province) who steals Iraqis' money, I give you my word, nobody's going to do that," Aboub boomed from the back of the class during a question-and-answer session with the American visitor.
"If you hang him up in the street, no one's going to steal again," he concluded.
Corruption has become pervasive in post-war Iraq, from the small bribes that Iraqis must pay to get papers stamped and cases attended to, to the millions allegedly bilked by senior officials. Iraq's former trade minister, facing allegations that his relatives had received hefty kickbacks from import contracts, was arrested in Baghdad airport in May after the aircraft that was taking him out of the country was turned around.
Corruption was exactly what Ambassador Joseph Stafford, anti-corruption coordinator at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, wanted to talk about. At the invitation of MNSTC-I, the military command responsible for training up Iraqi security forces, I joined Stafford for a Thursday morning visit to the Iraqi Counter-Insurgency School at Taji. The school was established in 2006 with U.S. assistance.
Stafford got a fair and polite hearing. He spent about an hour in the office of school's commander, Col. Ahmed Salim Jessem, and then spoke to a class of 32 Iraqi brigade and batallion commanders going through a three-week counter-insurgency course.
The colonel said he believed that ethics were an important part of officer training, but that his chain of command didn't always agree on making it a priority.
Indeed, it was clear that the Iraqi army has a lot else on its mind these days. Iraqi security forces increasingly are taking over from the U.S. military, with serious questions about how ready they are to fill the gap.
In rooms near where Stafford spoke to the class, preparations were underway for a major two-day computer simulation later in November in which large numbers of troops move in to Baghdad to help secure national parliamentary elections scheduled for January. In the simulation, and in real life, they'll have to learn how to coordinate with local civil authorities; protect infrastructure; deal with aggressive journalists; and respond to bombings or other outbreaks of violence.
"We're training them now for the important time, which is the election time," Col. Salim told Stafford.
He was open about problems with the Iraqi army. He said its image among the Iraqi people is much improved from years past, when officers were called "double agents" for working with foreign troops. But, he said the army was rebuilt "in a rush" after the United States disbanded it in 2003. Now, he said, many officers who were loyal to late dictator Saddam Hussein have rejoined. "They are back in the army. And they work like invisible hands."
U.S. military officers and contractors working at the school say the Iraqi military, while improved, still has a long way to go.
As the United States turns the "battlespace" over to Iraqis, often "they don't know what to do," said Army. Lt. Col. Patrick J. Christian, an American advisor to the school.
"Are they serving the population? Are they protecting infrastructure? Do they even know what infrastructure to protect? Are they protecting IDPs (internally displaced persons)?" Christian said, adding that the force lacks the "corporate management" that is second-nature to the American military.
Back in the classroom, Stafford, a former U.S. ambaassador to The Gambia, spoke in Arabic to the Iraqi officers and heard lots of complaints about corruption. Even in the military, one student said, it's necessary to pay a small bribe to get yout papers processed in an hour instead of, say, three days.
Stafford told them he sees more and more media reports of Iraqis investigated for corruption. And he explained steps the goverment of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, with U.S. help, is taking, including establishment of inspector generals in every ministry and yearly finance reports.
"Maybe you'll say this is a small thing, it's not important," he said, according to the translation. "But in my evaluation, it's a movement forward."
In an interview afterwards, Stafford said the questions he received made clear the Iraqis' recognition "that Iraq has a way to go in terms of a strong anti-corruption regime." But, he said, "they've also taken some important steps."
The private group Transparency International last year ranked Iraq 178 out of 180 countries in public perceptions of corruption, ahead of only Burma and Somalia.
U.S. officials say the study fails to account for steps Iraq has taken recently to establish institutions to battle corruption. They point to a study by another group, Washington-based Global Integrity. That study put Iraq in the lowest category, but on a par with another major Arab country, Egypt, and ahead of Morroco.