US ally in Iraq vowed to tackle corruption. Torture and extortion followed.
The Washington Post December 23, 2022
BAGHDAD - A flagship anti-corruption drive under the tenure of U.S.-backed Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi used incommunicado detention, torture and sexual violence to extract confessions from senior Iraqi officials and businessmen, according to a nine-month investigation by The Washington Post.
Kadhimi, who left office in October, came to power in 2020 after mass anti-corruption demonstrations felled his predecessor. His government's high-profile campaign to tackle graft in one of the world's most corrupt countries drew widespread international encouragement.
Central to the effort was a series of highly publicized night raids in late 2020 on the homes of public figures accused of corruption, conducted under the authority of the Permanent Committee to Investigate Corruption and Significant Crimes, better known as Committee 29. The architect of the raids was Lt. Gen. Ahmed Taha Hashim, or Abu Ragheef, who became known in Iraq as the "night visitor."
But what happened to the men behind closed doors was far darker: a return to the ugly old tactics of a security establishment whose abuses Kadhimi had vowed to address. In more than two dozen interviews - including five men detained by the committee, nine family members who had relatives imprisoned, and 11 Iraqi and Western officials who tracked the committee's work - a picture emerges of a process marked by abuse and humiliation, more focused on obtaining signatures for pre-written confessions than on accountability for corrupt acts.
Those interviewed for this story spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters or, in the case of detainees and their families, to protect their safety.
"It was every kind of torture," one former detainee recalled. "Electricity, choking me with plastic bags, hanging me from the ceiling by my hands. They stripped us naked and grabbed at the parts of our body underneath."
In at least one case, a former senior official, Qassim Hamoud Mansour, died in the hospital after being arrested by the committee. Photographs provided to The Post by his family appear to show that a number of teeth had been knocked out, and there were signs of blunt trauma on his forehead.
Allegations that the process was riddled with abuse became an open secret among diplomats in Baghdad last year. But the international community did little to follow up on the claims and the prime minister's office downplayed the allegations, according to officials with knowledge of the issue. Although a parliamentary committee first revealed the torture allegations in 2021 and Iraqi media have raised the issue sporadically, this is the fullest attempt yet to investigate the claims and document the scale of the abuse.
Iraq has lost more than $320 billion to corruption since 2003, according to estimates by the country's Parliamentary Transparency Commission, after the U.S.-led invasion created a political system that sustains itself through consensus among parties that divide up state resources to fund patronage networks and enrich their members. Most incoming prime ministers have announced initiatives to tackle corruption, but these have more often been used to discredit political rivals than to meaningfully address the problem.
The officials arrested under Committee 29 were often seen as easy targets, without powerful allies to defend them when the knock on the door came. Some of those detained had been dogged for years by allegations of corruption, but the secrecy of the committee and the opacity of the legal process make it impossible to know how many of the arrests were legitimate. Some appeared to be politically motivated, researchers say, targeting individuals with links to factions that threatened the political fortunes of one of Kadhimi's key backers, Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr.
"There's an element of political extortion and blackmail which plays a part in this," said a senior Iraqi official who served in Kadhimi's government. "There are cases where there are shakedowns. You attack someone's power base, their business power base, in a particular government agency, not only to indict these people and expose corruption, but also to create space for your people to come."
Kadhimi came to power in May 2020 as tensions between the United States and Iran were increasing on Iraqi soil. The former journalist and intelligence chief won swift support from Washington and the broader international community as a figure who promised to take on militias aligned with Tehran.
"I think we forgave him a lot because we said, 'Well, what can you do? He's at least well-intentioned and has the right pedigree and says the right things when you meet him,'" said one senior Western official.
Most in Kadhimi's inner circle have left Baghdad since he departed office, trailed by a new corruption scandal that has implicated his chief of staff and shaken Iraq. The former prime minister's current whereabouts are unknown.
Speaking on behalf of Kadhimi, a former senior adviser to the prime minister said he "categorically denied" the allegations of abuse. He also spoke on the condition of anonymity, claiming the issue was too sensitive to discuss on the record.
"The former government adhered to the highest standards of human rights. Distorting the factual record will grant impunity to some of Iraq's most violent and corrupt criminals," the former adviser said, noting that the committee had also targeted individuals with links to militias.
Abu Ragheef declined to comment for this story.
Human rights groups say enforced disappearance and torture have long been commonplace inside facilities run by Iraqi security forces. In office, Kadhimi vowed to investigate abuses when they arose.
But families of those detained by the anti-corruption committee say that they were sometimes unable to trace their relatives for several weeks while the bulk of the alleged abuses took place. Former detainees say they were often held in small cells inside a facility at the Baghdad airport run by the U.S.-trained Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service, usually used for the interrogation and detention of terrorism suspects.
Leaders of the force were unhappy about the use of their facility, according to two counterterrorism officials, but had no authority to intervene because they are under the control of the prime minister's office.
A Post reporter saw U.S. forces at the Baghdad airport complex in January 2021, during the period in question, suggesting they would have been aware of what was happening there. Iraqi counterterrorism officials said their American counterparts raised concerns about the use of the detention facility for interrogations not related to terrorism.
Asked whether coalition forces were aware of the abuse, or voiced concerns to Iraqi colleagues, Army Col. Joe Buccino, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said he had no information to provide.
Former detainees and Iraqi officials say additional abuses took place in an underground prison in the Green Zone in Baghdad, the U.S.-built, heavily fortified seat of power for Iraq's leaders.
"They began to torture me for 13 days, asking me who I gave bribes to and how much money I had," recounted one man detained by the committee during the opening round of arrests. "They asked for $1.5 million from me. I told them I couldn't pay because the money was tied up in projects, so they started with electric shocks in the penis area, beating with metal poles, hanging me on the wall."
In some cases, the accounts are corroborated by medical reports and photographs taken in custody that were reviewed by The Post and appear to show injuries consistent with the abuse described. In other cases, detainees said they were blocked from obtaining medical records to substantiate their claims.
Their stories are consistent and harrowing. Most said that they were blindfolded and subjected to frequent electrocution, beaten with sticks, waterboarded and stripped naked. At least two men told their families and legal representatives that they had been sexually abused. One former senior Iraqi official told his relative and cellmates that he had been forced to sit on a part from a car engine, an act that could constitute anal rape under Iraqi criminal law.
A fellow detainee described the sight of the man returning to his cell. "He was crawling like a baby, he couldn't even walk," he recalled. "His leg was swollen and his fingers were broken."
The allegations of torture were deemed credible by a cross-party parliamentary committee that gained access to the airport detention facility in December 2020. In a report published in March of the next year, the committee said its requests to interview detainees alone had been rejected.
A number of detainees said they had been subjected to electric shocks and other torture methods, the report said. When the investigators asked to meet with detainee Jawad Abdul-Kadhim Alwan al-Karaawi, the deputy director of the Najaf airport, "he was hidden from our committee," the report stated.
Karaawi's relatives, lawyer and three former detainees said the 54-year-old had been subjected to severe torture.
"When the parliamentary committee came, Karaawi had so many marks on his body that they couldn't show him to them," said one former detainee. The marks are detailed in reports from two forensic medical examinations, conducted by the Iraq Health Ministry in February and July of 2021, copies of which were shared with The Post by Karaawi's family, along with photographs taken during the course of his imprisonment.
In the case of Mansour, the official who died in August 2021 after being arrested three weeks earlier, his family never learned what happened to him in custody. "We have no information about him at all until they came to the house to tell us that my dad was in the hospital," said his son, Ali Zeirjawi. "By the time we got there, he was gone."
The man who led the anti-corruption drive, Abu Ragheef, was a well-known figure in Iraq's Interior Ministry, and a key interlocutor for Western governments and the United Nations throughout Kadhimi's time in office. He had a reputation as a hardened crime fighter, burnished by rumors that he had survived 13 assassination attempts.
In September 2020, the arrests of Ahmad al-Saedi, the head of Iraq's Retirement Fund, and Bahaa Abdulhussein, the head of electronic payment company Qi Card, were met with enthusiasm in Iraqi media, as well as by Western think tanks. By months later, when the men were convicted of stealing billions of Iraqi dinars, their cases had largely faded from view.
Official figures suggest that Committee 29 opened 156 cases before it was declared unconstitutional by Iraq's Federal Supreme Court and disbanded in March of this year. Nineteen people were convicted, seven of them former senior officials, but it is unclear how many were on corruption charges. Of the 12 active cases tracked by Washington Post reporters, nine men were still in prison and three had been released.
"Even the committee's achievements on the whole are not great," said Sajad Jiyad, a fellow at the Century International think tank in New York. "I think that's what Kadhimi's government was most proud of. Being able to extract money was much more important to them than showing the public that they were really going after corruption."
The total amount of money seized by the committee has never been publicly declared. Every former detainee or family member said suspects were told early in the investigation that paying money or signing over assets, often totaling millions of dollars, would result in their release.
It is unclear how many of the men were able to pay for their release, or where their money went.
Although the United States has been a major player in Iraqi politics since the 2003 invasion, Iraqi leaders have at times exploited the ignorance or indifference of allies in Washington by using promises of reform to persecute their rivals.
"Corruption is a formidable impediment to economic opportunity," spokesman Ned Price said in response to a Washington Post request for comment from the State Department on the allegations of abuse by Committee 29. "We encourage Iraqi leaders to pursue impartial and apolitical anti-corruption efforts in a legal framework that respects the rule of law and human rights."
Families of the detainees raised the abuse allegations consistently throughout 2021, sharing accounts with the U.N. mission and Western embassies in Baghdad. During private conversations with Western diplomats and U.N. officials, Kadhimi denied the allegations or said that he would act if there was evidence of wrongdoing, according to officials who were in the meetings or briefed afterward.
When Ulric Shannon, the Canadian ambassador in Baghdad, registered his government's protest over the treatment of Abdulhussein, a Canadian citizen, Kadhimi asked another Western diplomat to suggest that the Canadians maintain a lower profile on the issue, according to officials with knowledge of the matter.
One of Iraq's leading human rights officials, Ali al-Bayati, raised the abuse allegations on an Iraqi television show in 2020. A year later, he was sued for defamation by Iraq's Council of Ministers Secretariat, which is under the authority of the prime minister, forcing him later to leave the country to avoid legal retribution. In written communications to Western missions in Baghdad, reviewed by The Post, Bayati appealed for help with his case.
Some promised to privately intervene, he said, but shared little in the way of follow-up. Only United Nations special rapporteurs publicly criticized his treatment.
"'We think that this anti-corruption work is important," said a senior Western official, describing the attitude of the diplomatic community at the time. "How these prosecutions actually come about and how the confessions are obtained is unpleasant business, but it's sort of the cost of doing business, so to speak."
In the final months of Kadhimi's premiership, judicial officials announced that the largest corruption scandal in Iraqi history had taken place under his watch, enriching politicians and businessmen across the political spectrum. The theft of almost $2.5 billion from state coffers has become known here as the "heist of the century."
Iraq's new prime minister, Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, came to office in late October with the backing of the same Iran-linked groups that Kadhimi and his U.S. supporters had sought to sideline. He has described the fight against corruption as his government's No. 1 priority.
The Washington Post's Dan Lamothe in Washington contributed to this report.