U.S. officials say the battle to clean up Iraq's government has suffered a "serious blow" with the resignation of the nation's top corruption fighter. The former watchdog, Judge Radhi Al Radhi, tells NBC News that Iraq's current government, headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, is riddled with so much corruption that the U.S. must stop supporting it. Rahdi is now in the United States, and his departure from the Iraqi government comes just as the U.S. prepares for a key report from Gen. David Petraeus about the military "surge" in Iraq.
Until last week, Rahdi headed the Iraqi government department responsible for rooting out graft and fraud in Iraq's young government. It is called the Commission on Public Integrity, or CPI. It refers its investigations into corrupt officials to Iraqi courts for prosecution.
But Rahdi recently resigned, and he says that was because of numerous threats on his life by corrupt Iraqi officials. "They have militias," he says, "and they attacked my neighborhood with missiles and these missiles fell very close to my house." If he returns to Iraq under current circumstances he believes he'll be killed.
Rahdi says there is corruption at the highest levels in various ministries. Prime Minister al-Maliki is not corrupt himself, he alleges, but protects corrupt ministers and allies and has repeatedly obstructed investigations.
"He is protecting all the accused people who belong to his political bloc," he says. "He has interfered a lot in many ways. At first, he had issued orders for us not to try or even bring any cases to court with any previous or current ministers."
Rahdi complains pervasive corruption has crippled Iraq and added to the suffering of the Iraqi people. "The reconstruction of Iraq has almost stopped," he says. "[There's] no water, no electricity, no gas, no oil."
He explains corruption is a key factor: "This corruption has made our economy stale. It's frozen our economy; freezing our economy led to a lot of unemployment. Therefore crime and terrorism is occurring everywhere in Iraq. The militias are smuggling the oil and using that money to buy weapons."
His investigations have revealed graft and fraud throughout the Iraqi government, including cases against high-ranking officials in the Oil Ministry, the Interior Ministry, the Health Ministry and the Transportation Ministry. "There have been millions of dollars spent rebuilding the Ministry of Defense, but the security day after day is getting worse," he says. "Also, many millions have been spent on the Ministry of Interior, and still there is no security. The same thing happened in the Ministry of Health: The militias stole medicine, and they took medical and health equipment. I don't even want to tell you about the Ministry of Trade, where they're giving food to people that is not edible for any human being."
The al-Maliki government says corruption is a problem but denies blocking criminal investigations. And it has counterattacked — accusing Rahdi himself of being corrupt, charges U.S. officials dismiss. An al-Maliki spokesman says al-Maliki cooperated with Rahdi.
One critic of Rahdi is Sheikh Sabah Al-Saady, a minister of parliament who oversees corruption issues. American officials are skeptical of him. He told NBC that there are 50 charges against Rahdi and that Rahdi fled from Iraq. Radhi dismisses the charges, as do American officials. Some speak anonymously because they are not permitted to talk to the press.
But Stuart Bowen, the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, has worked with Judge Radhi and says he thinks highly of him. "Judge Radhi by my judgment was an honorable man and an effective crime fighter in Iraq, and it’s a loss for Iraq that he is no longer there," Bowen told NBC in an interview.
"This is a very serious blow to the corruption-fighting effort in Iraq," Bowen said. Bowen's office monitors how U.S. funds are spent in Iraq and investigates crimes involving U.S. projects in Iraq.
Rahdi clearly despairs for his country and says there is no longer any hope of progress under the current Iraqi government. He says of America, "When they realize that that they're paying money and lives without results, they will stop the support." Asked if the U.S. should drop support of the al-Maliki administration because of corruption, he answers "yes."
U.S. officials say they expect Rahdi to seek political asylum here, escaping threats from the very government America is supporting.
The al-Maliki government already has named his replacement at the Commission on Public Integrity, a man U.S. officials say was previously accused of corruption.