BAGHDAD — For the first time since modern Iraq was founded in the 1920s, a sitting government minister has been questioned publicly about corruption allegations, in this case about skimming millions of dollars from a national food-distribution program while ordinary Iraqis went hungry.
The parliamentary grilling of Trade Minister Abdul Falah al Sudany ran live Saturday and Sunday on state television, and everyone in Baghdad seems to have been watching.
"During Saddam's time we could only dream of seeing something like this," said Ali Hameed, 25, who was shopping at a market in Jadriyah.
By Monday afternoon, 100 legislators had signed a petition for a vote of no confidence in the trade minister, said Bassim Sharif, a member of parliament from the Shiite Muslim Fadhila Party. Only 50 are needed to call the vote, and a simple majority of the 275-seat parliament can force a resignation.
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The Ministry of Trade provides Iraqi families with ration cards that entitle them to monthly supplies of sugar, wheat, rice, cooking oil and other staples. Allegations of corruption in the agency speak to people's deepest fears of living in an out-of-control kleptocracy.
Sudany, a member of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's Shiite Dawa party, spent the weekend answering questions: about two brothers of his who're alleged to have collected a $40 kickback for every ton of sugar imported into Iraq; about his guards, who reportedly fired into the air when government investigators arrived at the Trade Ministry; and about an inspector general who was transferred to Beijing after he asked about shipments of spoiled food.
"You don't know this man," Sudany said when he was asked about the inspector general, calling him a "troublemaker." Sudany went on to say that the inspector general had threatened ministry employees and demanded bribes from them.
"If you knew he was a corrupt man, why did you promote him by making him commercial adviser in a foreign mission?" shot back Integrity Committee Chair Sabah al Saaidi of the rival Fadhila party, who did all the questioning wearing a turban and a wry grin.
Saaidi has emerged as something of a celebrity since the questioning. Banners saluting him and encouraging him to interrogate more government officials now adorn many Baghdad neighborhoods.
Some Iraqis said they saw the televised questioning as the birth of a real democracy, with the powerful held accountable in front of voters.
"It was great. I hope they interrogate all the ministers," said Ali Abdul Kareem, 27, who sells cigarettes along Sadoon street. Indeed, the ministers of transportation, oil and electricity already have received invitations to appear before a newly invigorated parliament.
Others viewed it as parliamentary propaganda, convinced that the politicians found a scapegoat for the sake of appearance.
"It's just theater to calm down the Iraqis," 38-year-old taxi driver Abbas al Attabi said, "to make it look like the politicians are doing something."
Last year, Transparency International, a global nongovernmental watchdog group, ranked Iraq third from the bottom in a 180-nation survey on the perceived integrity of government ministers. Only Somalia and Myanmar scored lower.
"The Ministry of Trade is a failure," said Abdul Hafith, who runs a small corner grocery store in Baghdad's Jadriyah neighborhood. Hafith said his customers routinely went months without their rations of staples. "They are all thieves," he shouted about the ministry employees, "from the highest to the lowest!"
Trade Minister Sudany didn't return messages requesting comment.
His brothers already face criminal charges. When investigators from the Integrity Commission showed up last month, ministry guards fired into the air, giving the brothers time to escape out a back door. One is still at large; the other was stopped driving through a checkpoint in southern Iraq with a trunk full of cash and jewelry.
Sudany, looking frustrated but defiant in a well-tailored Western suit, told Parliament over the weekend that his brothers' conduct "is a matter for the courts, and I believe our courts are just."
A parliamentary vote on Sudany's political future appears likely next week.
Regardless of what happens next, Sudany has secured his place in Iraqi history. "This was the first such interrogation in the Iraqi state since it was established in the '20s," said Sharif, the Fadhila MP.
"If it succeeds and the minister is deposed, it will rejuvenate people's confidence in parliament," Sharif added. "If it fails, it will be the coup de grace for the political process in Iraq."
(Dolan reports for The Miami Herald. Issa and Hammoudi are McClatchy special correspondents)
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