BAGHDAD - It has been a corruption scandal worthy of its name, complete with a shoot-out and a video showing officials cavorting with scantily clad women. Yesterday, it all came to a fittingly dramatic conclusion when the man at the center of the saga tried to flee the country, and Iraqi authorities ordered his plane to turn back midflight.
When the plane landed at Baghdad's airport, Abdul Falah Sudani, the country's trade minister until he was forced to resign last week, was promptly arrested.
Sudani was charged with procuring substandard foodstuffs for Iraq's food-ration program, but the allegations against his ministry go beyond that. Omar Abdul Sattar, a member of the Iraqi Parliament's anticorruption committee, said the sums stolen could amount to "hundreds of millions of dollars."
The arrest comes as part of an intensified effort to crack down on graft.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has called for a war on corruption to equal the one on terrorism, and billboards have been posted across Baghdad proclaiming, in blood-dripping letters, that "corruption is the breeding ground for terrorism."
Sudani is the highest-ranking former government official to be formally charged with corruption since 2006, when a former electricity minister was accused of overseeing more than $1 billion worth of improperly awarded contracts. That ex-minister escaped from his Green Zone jail cell in 2006 and resurfaced in Chicago.
Allegations of corruption swirl around virtually every Iraqi ministry and government department, with Iraqis expected to pay bribes for just about every government service, from pensions to the issuance of their national identity documents. Last year, the international watchdog group Transparency International ranked Iraq the second-most-corrupt country, behind Somalia.
Iraq's Integrity Commission, which is responsible for investigating graft, said last week that it planned to issue arrest warrants for 997 officials from various government offices, in addition to 387 warrants already served.
The Trade Ministry has always been particularly notorious when it comes to corruption, because of its role in procuring the food rations that are still distributed widely. Most Iraqis are familiar with the lumpy sugar, expired flour, and reduced quantities that they receive in their monthly rations.
The scandal erupted into the public consciousness last month when police who went to a Trade Ministry building to serve arrest warrants on nine officials were fired on by the ministry's guards. During the 15-minute gun battle, all but one of the wanted officials, the ministry's spokesman, escaped out a back door.
Two of them were Sudani's brothers, who were employed as guards in the ministry and have been accused of skimming millions of dollars from food-import contracts. One brother was later arrested in southern Iraq; the other is at large.
Then came the circulation of a video clip showing the minister's brother and spokesman laughing and joking as two women danced around them. "Maliki will sacrifice for you," one of the officials calls out, in a compliment to the women, but an insult to the Islamist prime minister.
Legislators summoned Sudani before Parliament but decided against a public airing of the video because it was deemed too racy. But it spread rapidly across Iraq's cellphone network and, eventually, surfaced on YouTube.