Iraqi authorities have opened inquiries into several cases of possible corruption at the Defence Ministry.

The ministry official believed behind most of the questionable deals was removed from his job in June and banned from leaving the country.

"Corruption is widespread at the ministry. One of the cases alone is worth $226 million. The investigation is still going on," said legislator Kamal al-Saaidi, a member of the independent Supreme Anti-corruption Commission.

Most of the alleged unnecessary purchases were made during the term of interim prime minister Iyad Allawi, who took office after occupation authorities turned over sovereignty to Iraqis on 28 June 2004.

Fighting corruption

When new Defence Minister Sadoun al-Dulaimi took office in May, an investigation was opened into several alleged cases of corruption.

"Corruption is widespread at the ministry. One of the cases alone is worth $226 million"

Kamal al-Saaidi, Supreme Anti-corruption Commission

Former national security adviser Qassim Dawoud refused to speak about corruption at the ministry, citing the ongoing investigation.

Iraqi investigators are probing several weapons and equipment deals engineered by the dismissed official, former procurement officer Ziad Cattan, and other defence officials.

One case involves Polish weapons maker Bumar, which signed a $236-million contract in December to equip the Iraqi army with helicopters, ambulances, pistols, machine guns and water storage tanks.

Million dollar contracts

Added to other deals signed last year, Bumar's contracts with the Iraqi army totalled nearly $300 million.

Iraqi officials said that when Iraqi experts travelled to Europe to check on the purchase of the transport helicopters, they discovered the aircraft, which cost tens of millions of dollars, were 28-years-old and outdated.

They refused to take them and returned home empty-handed.

In Warsaw, however, a spokeswoman for Bumar denied her company ever provided Iraq with poor-quality helicopters and said that although they were several years old and used, it was what the Iraqi Defence Ministry ordered.

Another case involving Cattan was a deal to purchase 7.62mm bullets, used in machine guns.

Iraqi officials said the bullets should have cost between 4 and 6 cents apiece but the ministry was eventually charged 16 cents per bullet.

Little oversight

Jawad al-Maliki, who heads parliament's Security and Defence Committee, said that despite spending huge sums, "we did not see weapons on the ground".

The criticised defence contracts
were made during Allawi's tenure 

Lieutenant-General David Petraeus, the American commander in charge of training and equipping the Iraqi military, declined to comment on the corruption claims, saying it was a matter to be resolved by the Iraqi government.

A US military officer who used to work with the Iraqi Defence Ministry said equipment that could have been useful was not being purchased, such as new armoured vehicles or good ammunition.

He said there appeared to be little oversight and accountability in the procurement of equipment.

Repeated attempts by reporters to contact Cattan in recent weeks were unsuccessful. However, in a telephone interview in May, he spoke proudly of his efforts to procure equipment.

Multi-nation deals

Cattan said that in only six months, he had signed contracts worth $600 million and that he headed military delegations to 15 countries including Russia, Poland and Germany.

He added that he signed contracts to "buy 500 Humvees, 600 armoured personnel carriers from Poland as well as transport planes from Russia and Poland".

Earlier this year, another scandal broke when media reports revealed that Allawi's defence minister, Hazem Shaalan, transferred $500 million to a bank account in Lebanon to buy weapons.

Ahmad Chalabi, the current deputy prime minister, demanded an investigation into that case.

"It will take us time to clean out the culture that Saddam brought to Iraq"

Ibrahim al-Jaafari,
Iraqi prime minister

Shaalan left Iraq after a new government was formed and remains abroad.

Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari recently complained about administrative and financial corruption but also blamed former president Saddam Hussein.

"Just as a house that is burned down takes time to rebuild, so it will take us time to clean out the culture that Saddam brought to Iraq," he said.

Polish troops charged

Meanwhile, nine soldiers and five civilians who were members of the Polish contingent in Iraq were charged with corruption during their mission there, military police announced late on Tuesday.
  
They said in a statement that the 14, in charge of aid projects, had been charged with "making financial profits from an illegal activity carried out between April 2004 and January 2005".
  
They were to be tried by a military court in Warsaw. During an inquiry carried out in Poland and Iraq, $232,000 had been recuperated, said the statement carried by Poland's PAP news agency.