Saturday, April 20, 2024

Investigators say ex-PM’s office at heart of Iraq’s ‘theft of the century’

The investigative committee probing the theft of $2.5bn from an Iraqi state bank account has concluded the office of former Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi was instrumental in the conspiracy, a report seen exclusively by Middle East Eye has revealed.

The Parliamentary Fact-Finding Committee was formed in late October after the crime, dubbed by Iraqi media the “theft of the century”, became public. It is made up of MPs from various political factions and was charged with discovering how the theft was conducted and who was involved.

The committee’s final report was submitted over the weekend and found that a number of members of the former prime minister’s team had “facilitated the theft” while in office and helped smuggle the stolen money out of the country.

Three members of Kadhimi’s office are among the most prominent figures implicated: office director and head of intelligence Raed Jouhi, private secretary Ahmed Najati, and political advisor Mashreq Abbas. Former Finance Minister Ali Allawi is also named. They deny the accusations.

On Friday, arrest warrants were issued for all four men on charges of “facilitating the seizure of tax deposits funds”, and authorities were instructed to seize their assets.

The warrants were issued “following the emergence of new evidence indicating the involvement of a number of other figures in the previous government”, according to a statement issued by the Federal Commission of Integrity (FCI), which created the committee.

Two Kuwaiti merchants of Iraqi origin, who were close to Allawi, are also sought for arrest.

Kadhimi, who was prime minister between May 2020 and October 2022 before being replaced by Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, has decried the accusations.

He stated the investigation “lacks acceptable limits of independence and indicates an open political approach in targeting and terminating everyone associated with working with the previous government”.

Kadhimi accused the investigation of targeting some people with the intention of masking the “actual criminals”.

Though the FCI’s statement on Friday did not reveal any details of new evidence uncovered, the investigative committee’s report does.

The committee found a total of some four trillion dinars, “about $3bn”, was withdrawn from the state-owned Rafidain Bank. It was taken out through 260 cheques and distributed between seven private companies between September 2021 and August 2022.

Five of the seven companies were newly established and do not have tax records, and the remaining two were purchased by the defendants “for the purposes of completing the theft”, the committee found.

“None of the companies had legal authorisation from the actual owners of the deposits to withdraw those deposits, despite their claim to do so,” the report reads.

The stolen funds were money paid in advance by companies against future tax liabilities.

Previously, the Federal Board of Supreme Audit (FBSA), Iraq’s public spending watchdog, had oversight of tax deposit refund requests.

However, just a few weeks before the funds began to be stolen, a change was made to allow money to be taken out without the FBSA’s permission.

The “official correspondences” surrounding that change are described as key to the theft, the investigative committee added.

The report names former chairman of the Parliamentary Finance Committee and Kadhimi financial advisor Haitham al-Jubouri; ex-director-general of the General Commission of Taxes (IGCT), Samer Abdulhadi; and former director of the FCI’s investigations department, Karim Badr al-Ghazi – as well as Jouhi and Allawi – as involved in these discussions.

The investigation’s conclusions are consistent with MEE’s reporting in November about how the theft was carried out and who is suspected of facilitating it.

A senior finance ministry official said the FBSA had previously reported the tax deposits in the account were vulnerable and attempted to warn that people may try and illicitly extract these funds. However, no one appears to have taken them seriously.

Instead, the FBSA’s reports became the “master key” that allowed the plot to develop “from A to Z”, the official stated.

“The only ones who heeded the warnings were the thieves who were guided by these alarm bells to the location of the money and the mechanisms to access it, to steal it,” he added.

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