WASHINGTON — Iraq's top corruption fighter, who's seeking U.S. asylum because of death threats against him, told a congressional panel Thursday that rising corruption cost Iraq $18 billion over the past three years, with enormous sums of oil revenues ending up in the hands of Sunni and Shiite militias.
Radhi Hamza al Radhi said Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and his government prevented Radhi's U.S.-backed Commission on Public Integrity from taking action against top national officials, including current and former ministers.
"I want to thank the American people for trying to help my country. I want people to know that real corruption — from the highest to the lowest levels of government — is destroying my country," Rahdi, an Iraqi judge, said in a statement. "It is impossible to have both democracy and corruption at the same time."
The Bush administration has been looking to Maliki to create a national government that represents all Iraqis fairly, regardless of sect or ethnicity, in order to establish a peace that would allow American forces to return home.
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, who called the hearing, said, "One of the keys to political reconciliation is combating corruption. ... An honest assessment of corruption in Iraq will provide insight into whether political progress is possible."
The Iraqi judge told the committee that 31 members of his staff and 12 of their family members were killed in Iraq. In one gruesome case, the father of one of his clerical workers, an 80-year-old man, was kidnapped and killed, and his body was found full of holes from a power drill. Another staffer's father's body was found hung on a meat hook.
"We have learned the hard way that the corrupt will stop at nothing," Radhi said.
Radhi said his commission was unable to investigate oil corruption. Sunni and Shiite militias control oil transport and distribution, he said, adding, "This has resulted in the Ministry of Oil effectively financing terrorism through these militias." He estimated oil corruption at $500 million.
The committee released a copy of two letters from Maliki's office to the Commission on Public Integrity that effectively ended an investigation of Maliki's cousin, Salam Audah Faleh, a former transportation minister.
Stuart Bowen, the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, who also has documented rising corruption in Iraq, said Radhi was the most prominent anti-corruption official in the country. "I found Judge Radhi my most reliable partner in carrying out my mission in Iraq," Bowen told the committee.
Radhi left Iraq on a business trip to the United States in August and resigned in September because of threats against him, including rocket attacks on his house.
While he and some of his staff were in the United States, "threats against me and my family in Iraq escalated to a point where, together with the immense pressure of the last two years from the highest levels of the Iraqi government," he "regretfully and painfully" decided to seek U.S. government protection, he said in his testimony.
Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., asked Radhi, "Wasn't there corruption under Saddam Hussein?"
"Yes, sure," Radhi replied, speaking through a translator.
Radhi worked as a legal official during Saddam's rule, but wasn't a member of the ruling party and was twice jailed and tortured.
Bowen said Iraq's current criminal law allows Iraqi ministers to grant immunity from prosecution to any ministry employee accused of wrongdoing. He said Maliki has ordered that his office must grant permission before any minister or former minister can be investigated.
Lawrence E. Butler, a State Department official for the Middle East, told Waxman and the committee that he was prohibited by his agency's rules from publicly criticizing Maliki and the Iraqi government. When Waxman asked him whether Maliki had blocked corruption investigations or whether the Iraqi government had the will to root out corruption, Butler refused to answer publicly, but offered to respond in a classified briefing.
Butler argued that criticism of Maliki and his government would undermine U.S. relations with them and could endanger Americans working in Iraq.
"This goes to the heart of diplomatic relations and national security," Butler said.
"It goes to the heart of propaganda," Waxman retorted.
Waxman said he'd have a public "confrontation" with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, saying, "We're not going to accept that anything negative is classified, and anything positive is OK."
The Democratic staff of Waxman's committee released a memo that found "dysfunction and disarray" in the U.S. Embassy's anti-corruption efforts in Iraq. The memo found that the embassy had problems staffing anti-corruption efforts and that those efforts produced little. It quoted Arthur Brennan, who directed the embassy's Office of Accountability and Transparency earlier this year, as saying he wasn't aware of a coordinated U.S. strategy to fight corruption in Iraq.
Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., said the embassy started its anti-corruption program a year ago, but it lacked strong leadership.
Bowen said U.S. support to Iraq's anti-corruption groups has been "disappointing."
Butler said Ambassador Ryan Crocker this week ordered a review of the embassy's anti-corruption work.