Iraq tightens control over illegal trade at borders

Work has begun on installing electronic system that will curb smuggling and evasion of tariffs, customs chief says

This picture taken on March 14, 2021 shows an aerial view of containers being unloaded off a cargo ship moored at the port of Umm Qasr, south of Iraq's southern city of Basra. Iraq is ranked the 21st most corrupt country by Transparency International. In January, the advocacy group said public corruption had deprived Iraqis of basic rights and services, including water, health care, electricity and jobs. It said systemic graft was eating away at Iraqis' hopes for the future, pushing growing numbers to try to emigrate. In 2019, hundreds of thousands of protesters flooded Iraqi cities, first railing against poor public services, then explicitly accusing politicians of plundering resources meant for the people. / AFP / Hussein FALEH
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Iraq has begun work on installing a new electronic system to curb smuggling and corruption at trade crossings, the head of the General Customs Authority said.

The country has five official crossing points along its 1,600-kilometre border with Iran and one on the nearly 370km frontier with Turkey, while the single biggest and most lucrative gateway is the port of Umm Qasr in the southern province of Basra.

Goods ranging from food to electronics are mostly imported from neighbouring Iran and Turkey and from China. Duties on these imports are expected to boost state revenue, which depends mostly on the oil sector.

“Since last month, we have started working on building an electronic customs system to prevent smuggling operations and tampering with receipts to curb corruption,” Shaker Al Zubaidi, director general of the General Customs Authority, told Arabic media in comments published on Monday.

“The system will also speed up work between customs outlets and our headquarters,” he said.

It will also ensure that stakeholders do not face delays in completing transactions and will prevent evasion of customs tariffs.

Mr Al Zubaidi last week announced the decision to enforce customs procedures, crack down on forged permits and launch investigations in all directorates.

The moves come after the discovery of government figures exploiting the customs system and as Iraq prepares to boost food imports amid uncertainty over global supplies.

Iraq's import system is known to be outdated and cumbersome, with a 2020 World Bank report citing frustrating delays, high compliance fees and frequent exploitation.

The United Nations trade body Unctad and the government signed an agreement in May last year to help modernise and automate Iraq's customs procedures. Unctad said the agreement included adopting its web-based Automated System for Customs Data to automate customs clearance procedures.

Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi vowed to fight corruption and put an end to smuggling operations at borders after he took office in May 2020.

He has said increased security at frontiers and ports would improve international investor confidence and help ease Iraq's economic situation.

Many of Iraq's entry points are reported to be informally controlled by groups within the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), a powerful state-sponsored armed network close to Iran, as well as other armed factions.

Members of the PMF, their allies or their relatives allegedly work as border agents, inspectors or police, and are paid by importers who want to skip the official process entirely or obtain discounts.

"If you want a shortcut, you go to the militias or parties," an Iraqi intelligence agent who has investigated customs evasion told AFP.

The groups deny these allegations.

Updated: April 11, 2022, 2:11 PM
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