Ex-Iraqi trade minister arrested

Former official taken into custody in crackdown over corruption scandal

? Iraq’s former trade minister was arrested Saturday in a burgeoning corruption scandal after his plane was ordered back to Baghdad while en route to the United Arab Emirates, officials said.

The fight against corruption is emerging as a major issue in Iraq, with many Iraqis convinced that graft and government mismanagement are nearly as a great a threat to the country as armed insurgency.

Sensing public discontent, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government has seized on the issue, promising stern action against wrongdoers after having been criticized for years for inaction against corruption.

Abdul-Falah al-Sudani, who resigned this month as trade minister, is the highest-profile figure arrested so far in an anti-corruption drive launched this year.

Officials rushed an arrest warrant to the Baghdad airport as soon as they learned that al-Sudani had boarded a plane for Dubai. The warrant was served as soon as the plane returned, said Rahim al-Ogaili, chairman of the government’s Commission on Public Integrity.

Al-Sudani, a member of al-Maliki’s Dawa party, is accused of mismanaging the Trade Ministry by importing expired foods, engaging in illegal contracts and employing relatives, said al-Ogaili.

His two brothers, who worked for the Trade Ministry’s security force, are accused of skimming millions of dollars in kickbacks on food imports. One of them is in custody after attempting to flee the country while the other is still at large.

The case became a national scandal after a video was posted on YouTube purportedly showing al-Sudani’s two brothers drinking and partying with scantily clad women. Al-Sudani has acknowledged corruption within the ministry but has denied any role.

Last Wednesday, al-Ogaili told Parliament that 997 arrest warrants have been issued this year against officials suspected of corruption, including 51 in senior posts.

Only about a third of the warrants have been served because many of those sought have fled the country.

The spotlight has fallen on the Trade Ministry because of its role in managing a massive $5 billion program to provide monthly food rations for all Iraqis. The program has been in effect since Iraq was under international sanctions following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

U.S. officials have long complained that corruption was siphoning billions of dollars away from Iraq’s struggling economy.