UN envoy urges Iraq to recover billions embezzled from tax authority

The corruption case involves $2.5 billion that was fraudulently paid to five companies

UN envoy Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert said Iraq was in dire need of the embezzled funds. AP
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The UN Special Representative for Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, has called on authorities to recover $2.5 billion that was embezzled from the General Commission of Taxes in the latest corruption scandal to rock the country.

The case was revealed on Saturday by Oil Minister Ihsan Abdul Jabbar, who ordered an investigation when he was acting finance minister. Documents related to the investigation have been leaked to the media.

The internal investigation concluded that 3.7 trillion Iraqi dinars (about $2.5bn) was fraudulently paid to five companies by the commission.

The money was paid through 247 cheques between September 9, 2021, and August 11, 2022, from the commission's account at state-run Rafidain Bank.

At least three of the companies were established in July 2021, according to registration documents revealed when the case was leaked.

Trading companies and people who have dealings with the government are required to deposit a specific amount of money, from which taxes will be deducted later.

Afterwards, the companies and people can apply to withdraw what is left from their deposits.

“Retrieve these funds and return them to their rightful owners,” Ms Hennis-Plasschaert said on Twitter on Monday evening.

“Support the GoI [Government of Iraq] in its investigations. Protect those who uncover. Ensure accountability”.

She underlined that the war-ravaged country was in dire need of the funds.

“What can Iraq do with its missing billions USD? Invest in schools, hospitals, energy, water, roads, etc.,” she said.

No more details have been released from the Integrity Commission — the government body that investigates corruption — or the judiciary. Both have been carrying out their own probes.

The Supreme Judicial Council said a Baghdad court had been investigating the case since August and described those behind the case as an “organised network linked to influential figures”.

Arrest warrants have been issued against number of people and the court has heard evidence from some Finance Ministry employees, the council said.

It did not give more details apart from saying the investigation was still under way.

Accounts seized and arrest warrants issued

The General Commission of Taxes' general director appeared before the judge along with his deputy and senior officials on Tuesday, the Judiciary Council said in a statement.

Authorities have issued arrest warrants against the owners of the companies and seized their accounts, it added.

The country’s political rivals, who have spent the past year feuding over the formation of government, have accused each other of setting up the allegedly fake companies.

Iraq’s prime minister-designate Mohammed Shia Al Sudani vowed to make the fight against corruption a top priority for his government.

“We will never hesitate to take real measures to curb the corruption that has so brazenly spread in the joints of the state and its institutions,” Mr Shia Al Sudani tweeted on Sunday.

“We have put this file in the first priority of our programme and we will not allow the money of the Iraqis to be stolen, as has happened with the funds of the General Authority for Taxes in … Rafidain Bank.”

Corruption has been rife in Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. Many politicians have been arrested or removed from office for the practice.

Iraq is considered one of the most corrupt countries in the world. It was ranked 157th out of 180 nations on Transparency International’s 2021 corruption index.

The latest case is one of the biggest since 2003.

In 2005, authorities issued arrest warrants for former defence minister Hazim Al Shaalan and more than 10 officials in a massive fraud case involving more than $1 billion.

Investigators then believed the money, intended to purchase weapons, was siphoned abroad in cash, describing it as the greatest theft in history.

Mr Al Shaalan, who has since fled the country, denied the accusations.

Updated: October 18, 2022, 11:44 AM