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Iraq's Anti-Corruption Czar: The Job so Tough They Won't Let You Quit

Fighting corruption in Iraq is such a relentless and thankless job that Hassan al-Yasiri has been trying for nearly a year to quit.

Yasiri, head of Iraq's independent anti-graft body the Commission of Integrity, submitted his resignation to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in June 2016 just a year after taking the post. It was rejected.

He insisted on resigning anyway, but has agreed to stay until a replacement is found. So he soldiers on, trying to root out graft in a country where bribery and the theft of state resources are blamed for everything from low living standards to the army's collapse in the face of Islamic State.

One of the reasons he wanted to quit, he says, was because the authorities took action in only 15 percent of the 12,000 cases of suspected corruption his commission investigated and reported to the judiciary last year.

"The number is very small. We want the judiciary to speed up the execution of cases to keep pace with the commission," said Yasiri, 47. "This pains me greatly."

Yasiri said he has taken bold steps, sending investigators to open up the files of every ministry looking for the slightest sign of corruption, and slapping travel bans on top officials for the first time.

Senior officials have been forced to become more transparent about their finances. But all the while he faces constant criticism from political blocs, used to using their control of ministries to hand out favors to their supporters. A member of Iraq's Shi'ite majority, he has been accused by Sunnis and Kurds of favoring his own sect, and by other Shi'ites of going after Shi'ites.

A senior Iraqi official approached him at his office in a highly fortified area of Baghdad, he recalls, without identifying the official.

We don’t mix the cocktail

"He told me, 'All those people you refer to justice are Shi'ites.' He said, 'There must be balance. There should be Sunnis and Kurds'," said Yasiri. "I told him: 'We don't mix this cocktail.’"

The prime minister has declared war on corruption but met fierce resistance from politicians, including some from within his bloc, who resisted efforts to remove political faction leaders from top posts and replace them with technocrats.

A parliamentary committee concluded that corruption within the officers corps was one of the reasons the Iraqi army fled without opposing the sweeping advance of Islamic State in 2014.

At the time, military officers were siphoning off the salaries of recruits who did not exist, known as ghost soldiers.

Yasiri said that problem had been reduced by closer scrutiny of the defense ministry, but more work was needed. Officers were still collecting part of the salary of some soldiers in return for allowing them to go on indefinite leave.

"There are one million people in the army. In all countries it is very hard to eliminate corruption among these large numbers," he said. "We are trying to tighten the noose around the corrupt, but it is difficult to eliminate corruption overnight. We need more time."