BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq’s acting trade minister sacked the head of its powerful grain board and six other officials over graft allegations, sources said on Tuesday, in a test of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s ability to push through political reforms.
Two trade ministry officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the move by Mohammed Shia al-Sudani was part of a comprehensive operation. It aimed to “cleanse the ministry of officials who have any hint of corruption”, one said.
The grain board is responsible for procuring grain internationally and from Iraqi farmers, making it one of the world’s biggest importers of wheat and rice. Any disarray there would raise concerns over the country’s ability to secure strategic commodities.
The sweep also focuses attention on Abadi’s attempts to push through reforms announced in August after nationwide protests erupted over corruption, poor electricity and water services and unemployment.
In an effort to rein in Abadi amid discontent over his leadership style, Iraq’s parliament voted unanimously on Monday to bar the government from passing important reforms without its approval.
Some trade officials and their deputies were replaced after they were found to be unqualified for their positions, a ministry statement said on Tuesday.
Authorities issued an arrest warrant last month for then Trade Minister Milas Mohamed Abdul Kareem after a corruption investigation into alleged bribes, illegal benefits and misuse of his position.
A court also summoned Abdul Kareem - among the most senior officials to face judicial action since Abadi launched the campaign - along with eight other ministry officials for questioning over claims of illicit gains made from the purchase of a Uruguayan rice shipment.
Abdul Kareem, whose current whereabouts are unknown, has said the allegations are not based on solid evidence.
Abadi’s reforms are intended to scrap senior political offices that have become a vehicle for patronage for some of the most powerful people in Iraq and root out incompetence that has undermined the battle against Islamist militancy.
Some have been implemented while others appear to have stalled.
Several trade ministry officials have faced corruption allegations in the past, and four ministry security guards are being prosecuted for allegedly killing a ministry media adviser in September with a bomb attached to his car.
The ministry is one of Iraq’s most high-profile, responsible for purchasing billions of dollars worth of commodities used in a nationwide ration programme.
“This corruption and violations smear the reputation of the country. If this situation continues, it could lead to dire consequences in the Iraqi trade sector,” one of the Reuters sources said on Tuesday.
“The government has run out of patience... and must hit with an iron fist to eliminate the plague of corruption in the ministry.”
Any rise in political tensions could undermine Baghdad’s efforts to tackle an economic crisis and form a united front against Islamic State insurgents posing the gravest threat to the leading OPEC oil producer since a U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Writing by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Michael Georgy and John Stonestreet