In the summer of 2012, a mysterious man walked into the office of Rafe al-Essawi, then the finance minister, and handed him a sheaf of documents. The man, who identified himself as Mohammed Abdullah, said that they were government contracts, totalling seven billion dollars, along with instructions to wire payments to a series of Iraqi bank accounts. They appeared to have been approved by Maliki’s cabinet and signed by four of his ministers. Essawi examined the documents, and quickly determined that they were fraudulent: the contracts, the companies, the approvals, the signatures. “Everything was fake—everything,” Essawi told me.
Essawi ordered his men to block the exits and arrest the man, but he managed to get away. Soon afterward, Essawi said, he visited Maliki and handed him the file and a photograph of the man, captured by the ministry’s security cameras. He told Maliki he believed that Abdullah was probably working with people close to Maliki. “I asked the Prime Minister to use the intelligence agencies to investigate,” Essawi said. Essawi never heard back. A few months later, Iraqi troops stormed the Ministry of Finance, setting fire to Essawi’s office and several others, and destroying the cameras that had recorded Abdullah’s photo. The soldiers carted away dozens of Essawi’s bodyguards.
Essawi’s story is one of dozens I heard in Iraq and neighboring countries about corrupt members of Maliki’s government, ranging from a circle around the Prime Minister to the lowest functionary. Most of the allegations are unproved, but they are persistent; Iraqi and U.S. officials, both current and former, tell tales of extortion, bribery, kickbacks, and theft. Many involve the siphoning of Iraq’s oil revenues, which last year exceeded ninety billion dollars. Others describe the corrupt use of Iraqi banks to tap the black market in dollars. In the past few years, several government contracts have turned out to be entirely fake. In 2011, the government cancelled a $1.2-billion contract to build ten power plants, and announced that the Canadian company hired to do the work existed only on paper. “The corruption is Olympian,” the former senior C.I.A. official told me.