The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is systematically dismissing Iraqi oversight officials who were installed to fight corruption by order of the U.S. occupation administration.
The dismissals, confirmed by senior Iraqi and U.S. officials, came as estimates of official Iraqi corruption soared. One Iraqi former chief investigator recently testified before Congress that $13 billion in U.S. reconstruction funds had been lost to fraud, embezzlement, theft and waste by Iraqi government officials.
The moves have not been publicly announced by al-Maliki's government, but word has begun to circulate through the Iraqi bureaucracy as parliament prepares to vote on a long-awaited security agreement.
That pact sets the terms for continued U.S. presence here after the U.N. mandate expires Dec. 31, but also amounts to a framework for a steady reduction in that presence. Such a change will undoubtedly lessen American oversight of Iraqi institutions.
While some Iraqi officials defended the dismissals, saying there had been no political motivation, others pointed to the secrecy surrounding the moves. .
Each of Iraq's 30 cabinet-level ministries has one inspector general. Some have been notably quiet, while others have vigorously investigated current and former officials. The top echelons have found ample reason to fear them.
In one case, investigations of a former electricity minister landed him in jail before he fled to the United States.
Estimates of how many of the ministries have received orders to dismiss their inspectors range from a handful to as many as 17.
But Adel Muhsin, al-Maliki's coordinator of anti-corruption organizations and himself the inspector general at the Health Ministry, said any suggestion of political motivation for the dismissals was false.
Stuart Bowen, who leads an independent oversight office in Washington, the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, and who is currently working in Iraq, said the inspectors general were vulnerable because the U.S. provided little support and training for what was a startling concept for a country shaped by the secrecy and corruption of the Saddam Hussein era.
The events have begun provoking accusations that al-Maliki might leave the posts vacant or stack them with supporters. The prevailing secrecy has magnified suspicions that the government aims to cripple the oversight mechanisms put in place after the invasion.
“The government put a publicity blackout on it so they can do anything they like,” said Sheik Sabah al-Saeidi, a Shiite lawmaker who heads the Integrity Committee in the Iraqi parliament.
When parliament recently proposed a law formalizing the professional requirements that must be met by a candidate for inspector general, al-Saeidi said, al-Maliki's cabinet strongly opposed it.
“They want it to become a political appointment,” al-Saeidi said of the oversight position. “They are trying to restrict anti-corruption efforts all over the country.”