Ex-intelligence chief picked to lead Iraq's anti-corruption team in power play by PM

Country ranked one of world's most corrupt

Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani promised to make tackling corruption his priority after taking office last month. Photo: Iraqi Prime Minister Media Office via Reuters
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Iraq's Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani has ordered the setting up of a new anti-corruption body and a supporting security team with “broad powers” that will be led by the former head of a highly secretive intelligence unit.

The new team for enforcement of anti-corruption operations will be led by Abdul Karim Abd Fadel, director general of the Interior Ministry and former head of the secret Falcons Cell intelligence unit, an organisation that worked closely with former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki.

It was later seen as close to Iran-backed Shiite militias, raising concerns over politicisation of the new anti-corruption effort.

The “exceptional” High Anti-Corruption Commission was created to combat corruption with “unconventional mechanisms to avoid the previous shortcomings”, the Prime Minister's office said in a statement issued late on Wednesday.

The new body will “speed up addressing major corruption cases, work for extradition of those wanted for corruption-related cases and return the money”, it said.

Judge Haider Hanoon Zayer, chief of Iraq's federal anti-corruption agency, will lead the new commission.

Mr Al Sudani also ordered the formation of a “special support team with broad powers” to support the commission, his office said, without specifying its powers.

Mr Fadel, widely known by his nom du guerre Abu Ali Al Basri, was one of the founders of the Falcons Cell when it was created in 2009 under the supervision of former prime minster Nouri Al Maliki.

The cell, which received direct training from the CIA and Britain's MI6, gained a solid reputation after making key arrests of Sunni insurgents and thwarting attacks during the fight against Al Qaeda and then ISIS.

The unit worked independently and answered directly to Mr Al Maliki, who served from 2006-2014.

The Falcons Cell gained international attention following publication in 2020 of a book by the journalist Margaret Coker, who worked at The New York Times. The Spymaster of Baghdad provided an inside look at the cell's operations and praised them as a rare success story in Iraq's fight against terrorism.

Mr Fadel was appointed to his Interior Ministry post as part of a wide reshuffle of the military, police and intelligence leadership after back-to-back suicide bombings in Baghdad that killed 32 people and injured more than 100 in early 2021.

Then prime minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi's decision move Mr Fadel was seen as an attempt to weaken Iran-linked parties and to bring the Falcons Cell under his control. He had pledged to reign in Iran-backed Shiite militias when he took office in May 2020.

Mr Al Sudani, who enjoys the backing of Iran's staunch allies in the Co-ordination Framework parliamentary bloc, has been replacing government officials appointed by Mr Al Kadhimi with others linked to or close to the bloc's members.

The Co-ordination Framework, comprising political groups linked to Iran-backed militias, is the largest bloc in Iraq's Parliament with 138 out of 329 seats. Mr Al Sudani took office late last month after parliament approved his government line-up, ending a year-long political stalemate between Iraq's pro-Iran Shiite factions and followers of nationalist Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr.

Mr Al Sudani's term started with the exposure of two major corruption scandals.

The first case involved the embezzlement of 3.7 trillion Iraqi dinars (almost $2.5 billion) from the federal tax authority in what is being described locally as “the theft of the century”.

The second came to light when the National Security Service arrested a network for siphoning crude oil from pipelines in remote areas of southernIraq and smuggling it out of the county. Senior Interior Ministry and intelligence officers were allegedly involved.

Corruption is rife in Iraq, which ranks a lowly 157 out of 180 countries listed in Transparency International's corruption perceptions index.

It has hamstrung the country’s efforts to recover from decades of war and UN economic sanctions imposed during Saddam's regime.

Last year, former president Barham Salih estimated that Iraq had lost $150bn to embezzlement since 2003.

Updated: November 17, 2022, 2:51 PM