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Graft the next great hurdle to a 'new' Iraq

Worse than the Saddam years? On the topic of corruption, many Iraqis say yes.

For those dealing with the aftermath of the war, corruption has added hurdles to already difficult jobs.

Iraqi Army Lt. Col. Satwan Dalow Haji is responsible for monitoring a number of government reconstruction projects in the Diyala Province and says that he’s discovered several fake or mismanaged projects.

In particular there’s been a problem with contractors getting paid too early. Legally, contractors are not allowed to receive payment until they’ve completed 75 percent of the work on a given project. This is often not the case, says Haji. Now, work has stopped on a number of projects and it remains unclear when it will start again.

For the Iraqi Army, which is depending on displaced people to return in order to help maintain security gains, this threatens credibility they’ve fought hard to earn. "People are very angry. There are many displaced people and the [Iraqi] army promised them if they returned they would provide services. Now these people say we lied to them," Haji says.

A number of citizens harbor concerns about the integrity of Iraqi security forces. While the Iraqi Army generally enjoys a reasonably sound reputation, many Iraqis worry about police extortion.

A prominent Iraqi official told U.S. Army Col. Burt Thompson that he believes Iraqi detention centers are a source of income for corrupt Iraqi police. "The perception, and maybe even the reality in some cases, is that these detainees that are in these prisons … are kind of an 'oil well' for the police that are running it if there are no checks and balances,” he says. Though he says that he has not seen proof of police extorting prisoners, he adds, “Sometimes perception is reality."

After decades of living under Saddam and the embargo years, many Iraqis have become comfortable living with a certain degree of corruption in their society. What is considered a bribe in the West, may be considered a normal cost of doing business in Iraq. The task ahead may well be finding a way to reduce excesses.

Still, there are signs of progress. General attitudes are shifting and there is increasingly less tolerance of unethical government conduct.

“You’re having a public environment in which corruption is seen as less and less acceptable and officials have to speak out against it,” says a Western diplomat in Iraq, speaking anonymously due to the sensitivity of the issue. Still, he adds that putting a stop to widespread corruption “will take a time and the progress will be measured in small steps.”