By Missy Ryan and Muhanad Mohammed
BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Outside the office of Aqeel al-Turaihi, inspector general at what is seen as a corrupt countryâ€™s most corrupt government agency, hangs a â€˜Board of Honourâ€™ showing photos of slain colleagues. Since he began probing theft, human rights abuses and police infiltration by militias in Iraqâ€™s Interior Ministry in 2006, more than 40 members of Turaihiâ€™s team have been assassinated.
â€œWe are targeted from two sides: by terrorists because we are part of a security agency and by unscrupulous officials because we fight corruption,â€ he said.
Assailants have tried several times to kill Turaihi himself, an amateur poet and one-time activist against dictator Saddam Hussein, including a bomb attack on his convoy two years ago. The most recent threat on his life was less than a month ago.
Yet, Turaihi said, big strides had been made in combating malfeasance in the ministry, a vast bureaucracy that includes more than 300,000 police and about 200,000 other employees.
â€œThere has been a big improvement. When we talk about the problems that might exist in the ministry, we need to note that weâ€™re watching them closely and working hard to correct them.â€
As Iraq battles a stubborn insurgency and takes on greater responsibility for security from U.S. troops, it must face not just corruption but allegations police or soldiers take bribes from militants or even collude in bloody attacks on civilians.
In a new report, parliamentâ€™s security and defense committee charges security forces were at least indirectly responsible in recent attacks on state buildings that have added a new element of uncertainty before national elections in March.
Seven or eight members of security forces remain in police custody after those attacks, committee member Falah Zaidan said.
Ammar Tuâ€™ma, another lawmaker on the committee, said security forces were infiltrated.
â€œThere are elements complicit with terrorists in implementing these explosions,â€ he said.
While officials deny any systemic wrongdoing among uniformed Iraqis, they acknowledge shortcomings in keeping Iraqis safe and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has vowed dire consequences for those taking part in such attacks.
EJECTING CRIMINAL ELEMENTS
In the bloody years after Saddamâ€™s ooverthrow, when U.S. officials disbanded security forces and rebuilt them anew, the Interior Ministry was widely believed to be in the grip of Shiâ€™ite militias that went after adversaries with impunity and targeted Iraqis from the once-dominant Sunni minority.
Turaihi said most criminal elements were â€˜cleansedâ€™ from the ministry.
â€œThere was a time when the ministry may not have been so professional and its loyalties might have been weak, but those loyalties have now come together under a national banner.â€
Critics are skeptical about how zealous Turaihi and other anti-corruption officials in Iraq have been in that fight.
Zaidan said Turaihi, whose 2,600 inspectors oversee a ministry of 500,000 employees, and his Defense Ministry counterpart were not up to snuff and may need to be replaced.
While graft is sure to be a hot issue in the March 7 national polls, Iraqâ€™s record on going after iniquitous officials, especially those from senior levels, is poor.
Iraq is still ranked as one of the worldâ€™s most corrupt countries even as it stands on the verge of signing energy deals that could bring a flood of new oil revenue.
The Interior Ministry has been especially problematic. An independent panel reported there were more Interior employees convicted of corruption in 2008 than any other ministry.
The same year, senior officials shut down 135 suspected corruption cases across the government, and another 1,552 were abandoned because suspects were covered by an amnesty law that has been morphed to become a corruption shield.
Turaihi said he did not support a full cancellation of the controversial article that allows ministers to protect subordinates, but said it should be used only to protect prosecution of â€˜unintentionalâ€™ crimes.
(Additional reporting by Waleed Ibrahim, Suadad al-Salhy and Khalid al-Ansary; Editing by Angus MacSwan)