BAGHDAD – Iraq should launch an anti-corruption campaign that would match the fight it has waged against insurgents and militias, the country's prime minister said Saturday amid increasing complaints over criminality in the government.
Nouri al-Maliki told representatives of the powerful northern Shammar tribe that bureaucrats stealing public money are just as bad as criminals robbing jewelry stores, referring to a bold heist in Baghdad last month.
"We should launch a campaign against those corrupt people just as we had launched a campaign against outlaws," he said.
Corruption watchdog Transparency International rated Iraq in 2008 as the third most corrupt country in the world after Somalia and Myanmar. But the Iraqi government has long downplayed the corruption riddling the country's ministries and hamstringing its reconstruction efforts after years of war.
Last month, Iraqi police went to arrest several Trade Ministry officials, including two of the minister's brothers, on charges of embezzling $7 million, but they were held off by security guards until the wanted men could escape.
"The government and the people should cooperate to get rid of the corrupt elements stealing the public money," al-Maliki said.
Iraq has struggled with corruption since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, and government workers have been accused of absconding with billions of dollars earmarked for reconstruction, military supplies and food.
The U.S. special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, Stuart Bowen, once described corruption as a "second insurgency," noting that not only was it preventing rebuilding but it was funding militants.
In 2007, the former head of the state anti-corruption commission, Radhi al-Radhi, said some $8 billion had been lost.
But there are increasing signs that Iraqis have become fed up with the situation, and some officials have taken more vigorous efforts to stop corruption.
"Corruption is a violation of both religious and moral norms and laws," the influential Iraqi Shiite preacher Sheik Abdel-Mahdi Karbalai said in his weekly sermon on Friday. He estimated that a third of the government was corrupt.
Also Saturday, the U.S. military announced the death of two soldiers in separate noncombat related incidents.
There also was sporadic violence in the country. A gunman equipped with a silencer fatally shot a police brigadier general south of Iraq's port city of Basra, according to the city's police spokesman Col. Karim al-Zeidi. In the northern city of Mosul, a gunmen shot dead an off-duty policeman in a spray of bullets that wounded three passers-by, according to the province's military command.
One of the leaders of a U.S.-allied Awakening Council that turned against Al Qaeda also was killed by a roadside bomb 12 miles north of Baghdad, police said.
Abid Mohammed Hussein was a leading member of a council in the Taji area. Though it was unclear who was behind the attack, Al Qaeda has often targeted these groups.
The U.S. military also said American troops in Mosul killed a 12-year-old boy when they opened fire on two or three people who threw a grenade at a joint U.S.-Iraqi patrol on Thursday. U.S. spokesman Maj. Derrick Cheng said the boy was "involved" in the grenade attack and was found with 10,000 dinars, or about $9, in his hand.
"We have every reason to believe that insurgents are paying children to conduct these attack or assist the attackers in some capacity, but undoubtedly placing the children in harm's way," Cheng said Saturday.
Iraqi police Brig. Gen. Abdul-Karim al-Jubouri confirmed the grenade attack but said a boy selling candy at a nearby stall was shot when U.S. soldiers fired at the grenade thrower, who fled the scene.
Despite the drop in violence over much of the country in the last year, violence has persisted in Mosul, the last urban stronghold of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Gen. Raymond Odierno, the overall commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said on Friday that U.S. and Iraqi forces were in the midst of a neighborhood by neighborhood sweep of the city ahead of a June 30 deadline to hand over the city's security to Iraqi forces.
He said it was not clear whether his troops would be pulling out of Iraq's third largest city on the deadline, as stipulated by the U.S.-Iraqi agreement. Odierno said perhaps 20 percent of the U.S. forces left in Mosul, Baghdad and other cities will remain past the deadline, but they will play advisory and support roles and won't be engaged in combat.
Iraqi officials have described the deadline as "non-extendable."